Why do people tend to make resolutions on New Year's, the dawn of the year, and sometimes even delay working on goals to start them on this calendar day? Isn’t today just as good as any day to achieve a goal or change a habit? Actually, no. Studies show when a resolution or goal is set, it can push people to start working to make their goals more successful. Landmarks such as birthdays, New Year's or the start of a new school or job encourage people to pursue their goals and can sometimes make them more likely to last. This is known as the “fresh start” effect.
The fresh start effect makes goals and resolutions more likely to start and last for several reasons. A landmark creates a psychological clean slate and helps people leave past mistakes in the past, often a hinderance when people try to change. Landmarks and new starts also tend to make people more reflective of where they are and where they want to be, making it easier to identify goals and aspirations.
For most of us, college will be the biggest fresh start of our life. College brings a new school, new people, new professors and a new town, all without the comfort of parents or your own home for the first time. College is a place where no one, or at least very few people, know you and also a place mostly free from tight parental or adult control. This is the place to decide who you are as an individual and who you want to become. If in high school you ever wished you could be someone else, college is the time to make that happen. What better place to take advantage of the fresh start effect?
As college goes on, we will find our own unique ways to set goals, develop new habits and establish our individual identity, but here are some steps that many people find helpful when planning and setting out goals for the new school year.
1. Grab a notebook, phone, index cards, laptop or anything to write and organize your thoughts.
For many people, writing down goals is an effective way to make them clearer and more tangible. After setting your goals and action plan, consider posting them on notecards or post-its and put them around your room as a constant reminder of what you want to achieve.
2. Ask yourself reflective questions.
An important step in developing goals is self-reflection. Ask yourself some deep questions and some easier ones. What qualities do you admire or want to acquire? What grades do you want to earn this semester? What organizations do you want to get involved in and at what level? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years and how can you get there? What kind of person do you want to be? Answer the questions however you want and write down the answers.
3. Set SMART goals.
In elementary school, I sat through numerous lessons on SMART goal setting. While it was annoying at the time, the SMART acronym does set very good guidelines for setting goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely, although some people use different words.
An example of a SMART goal is, "I will earn an A in [class] by the end of the semester." It is specific (an A in a specific class), measurable (you can track grades on quizzes and exams), attainable (some people will get an A), realistic (assuming the subject is not too difficult for you personally) and timely (there is specific deadline, which is the end of the semester).
While SMART goals provide a good framework, do not feel bound by these guidelines. They are not always ideal for goals about characteristics for which you want to develop, such as empathy, outgoingness or general goals about self-exploration.
4. Create steps and an action plan.
It isn’t enough to have a goal. You have to know how to achieve it. Look at your goals and see what steps you need to take to achieve them. Examples of steps include joining a study group or going to office hours for academic goals, joining the right clubs or organizations and determining how to get more involved or figuring out how you will develop certain characteristics or attributes.
5. Execute and adjust as needed.
After determining specific goals and steps to achieve those goals, put your plan into action. Throughout the semester and year, you may need to adjust your goals or steps to make them more attainable and realistic.
6. Acknowledge when you achieve your goals and reward yourself.
Just as failing to complete goals can discourage people from attempting goals in the future, acknowledging and rewarding yourself when you achieve a goal can encourage you to continue setting and achieving goals. Always acknowledge when you achieve your goals and take time to be proud of yourself. Changing habits and accomplishing goals, any kind of goals, are not easy tasks. You can also use a reward-based system as motivation by looking to the reward you will get by achieving your goals.
Take control of your life and make changes as college starts. Use the fresh start provided by college to become the person you have always wanted to become. Use this fresh start to make goals, change habits and grow in all the aspects of your life.
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