PhD Life

Setting goals for the year ahead.

It’s always great to focus on setting goals for the year or the months ahead. This post provides a framework on how to identify your goals, which direction to move in, and more importantly, how to construct and design your goals so they can be fulfilled.

The new year has started and it’s the typical inflection point we all take to start to setting goals, take stock of the last 12 months, and begin to work toward the next step in our lives. Well at least that’s what we should be doing – the vast majority of people fail to set goals at all, with even more setting goals and failing to stick to them. This post is going to talk us through some goal setting and how to set ourselves up for success for the next year and beyond.

In other posts, we’ve explored Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – a psychological framework to enable you to reach your full potential (referred to as self-actualisation). To move towards self-actualisation, it’s imperative to have a range of ‘basic’ human needs met. This includes your physiological needs, safety, emotional needs and so on. This can begin to feel irrelevant, or at least not tangible to our daily lives. A nicer way to think of this is to first move towards a place of stability and content. It’s not uncommon to have things in our lives that throw us off, stress us out, interfere with our relationships, or hinder our physical and/or psychological health. With that in mind, a goal to begin with should be getting rid of the bad. And in instances where you can’t simply remove it, finding tools and techniques to manage it or implement healthy boundaries.

In the context of a PhD, these things might look like poor working hours, imposter syndrome, and perfectionism. Limited pay, and lack of job security can also contribute to some turbulence during the PhD journey. Thus, it would make sense for our immediate goals to be around addressing these factors. Looking at resources, speaking to friends, reading blogs (hint hint), listening to podcasts, purchasing books and so on, are all good initiatives to take. All in all, this makes sense, it’s not going to be possible for you to show up and be your best self, create a business, or publish an incredible paper if you’re not getting enough sleep, are overworked, or if you’re struggling to make monthly payments on your rent. These don’t feel like goals and this goal setting activity might even feel incredibly boring and uninspiring, but they’re absolutely necessary for you to be able to thrive and reach your full potential. Flowers don’t grow in a hurricane, so it’s important to quell the storm.

These foundational needs vary from person to person so it’s important to reflect and identify what these are for you (if there aren’t any that you need resolving, that’s a good thing but keep on reading!). A PhD is renowned for being incredibly challenging – partly to do with the toll it takes on your well-being. Knowing how and when to take a break, recharge, and eliminate stressors is the first step to goal setting for the year ahead. If you’re of the group who’ve already steadied the ship and you feel relatively stable with your current situation (i.e., none or limited turbulence), it’s time to think bigger and bolder in your goal setting exercise.

All the steps outlined above, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is applicable to everyone and anyone. Due to the set-up of a PhD, it’s more likely your basic needs need addressing during your PhD. Once you complete your PhD and do successfully find your next career path (whether that’s in academia or not), it’s incredibly easy to fall into a place that’s comfortable – a little too comfortable. Here, we don’t feel stretched to engage properly in goal setting. Unfortunately, this isn’t specific to academics at all, many people fail to set goals when they’re in this state. Being too comfortable with where you are, and accepting that, is where a lot of people choose to stay.

Going through the motions of life, bouncing pay-check to pay-check is the default setting for most. Again, much of this approach aligns with our previous post around having a growth mindset. We want to be goal setting in a way that pushes us to new heights and new achievements. If we think back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s no longer about eliminating turbulence (as we’ve already done that), it’s now about moving towards self-actualisation, finding purpose and meaning in the life we live – or building in the room to explore this further, or creating a more enriching environment that enables us to have this.

Once we get to a place of stability and comfort, we need to think about the best version of ourselves. What does that look like? How do you want your life to look like? Do you want to keep doing the job you’re doing? Where do you want to live? Do you want/have kids, and if so, what world do you want to raise them in? If not, what will you do with the extra time instead? Much of these questions tug on your life values – and so our goal setting exercise should be about moving towards a more authentic life and developing and growing ourselves further.

Accepting that your life is ‘good’ or ‘finished’ isn’t a healthy mindset to have. Instead, we should view the world as something that is not set in stone, nothing is fixed, you have the capabilities to be flexible, and to be able to reconstruct your life in any way possible. Because of this, we might find room to start setting goals that are ambitious, that are challenging, but ultimately move us forwards. These forward goals might align with personal ones (e.g., buying a house, moving cities, taking up new hobbies), professional ones (e.g., publishing, career changing, up skilling and developing new transferable skills), relationship ones (e.g., focusing more time on our relationships, spending more time with our loved ones, repairing or fostering deeper relationships with certain people), or health ones (e.g., drinking less alcohol, losing weight, eating healthier, focusing on our psychological health). Remember, self-actualisation and reaching your full potential is the true end point, so having a yearly goal that moves us towards that is key.

Alright, so we’ve briefly covered how to approach your goals, to start with finding stability, and then to move towards self-actualisation. But how do we practically go about goal setting? Once you’ve identified what you want to work towards, it’s now time to work backwards from that and deconstruct them in a way that is tangible. There are literally millions of other blogs, books, articles, podcasts, and more that talk around how to set goals. Even as PhD students, you’ll know how to engage in long term goals and leverage your ability to have delayed gratification to achieve something over the long haul. Because of the abundance of resources that exist already, we encourage you to do some further reading (if you haven’t got enough already). But for now, the basic framework to follow when goal setting is to have what’s known as SMART goals. This acronym enables us to construct our goals to make them tangible and intentional.

First, they need to be Specific. This one is quite hard to get wrong, but ultimately you want to phrase your goal with an action that is explicit. It should aim to answer questions like ‘What needs to be accomplished?’, ‘Who is responsible for it?’, and ‘What steps need to be taken to achieve it?’. For those of you in research, think of it similar to operationalising a hypothesis.

Once you’ve got the specifics, it’s about making the goal Measurable. When setting goals, it’s always useful to have a mechanism to evaluate your performance. This makes it tangible. Saying you want to go to the gym more isn’t measurable. Saying you want to go to the gym three times a week is. Finding a way to quantify your goal is easier to track progress, identify when you’re slipping (so you can get back on track), and enable you to know clearly when you’ve reached the finish line and completed the goal. No matter what your goal is, it should be measurable – if it isn’t, find a way to adapt it or frame it in a way that can be measured.

We’re all about ambitious goals, but it’s useless if your goals aren’t realistic. This leads us to the next part of a SMART goal – that they should be Achievable. It’s important to be objective and think to yourself if it truly can be done. This encourages us to think about our blockers, potential barriers, or any obstacles that might arise. It helps us to incorporate contingency plans and problem-solving options into our goals to ensure we meet them. Furthermore, it can help prevent the trap of feeling disheartened if we don’t achieve our goals. Making sure it’s realistic and achievable will help create momentum and satisfaction when we do in fact complete it. All advice is to have a goal that is achievable, but don’t get too comfortable either – it’s worth reading this post around productivity as you may want to leverage concepts like Parkinson’s Law and the 80/20 rule here.

The R in SMART goals stands for Relevant. Does this goal align with the bigger picture? Does this goal actually move you towards self-actualisation or is it just a goal for the sake of it being a goal or is it because someone else/society suggested it. Setting goals that align with the long-term vision is imperative. If your goal doesn’t feed into the bigger picture, you’re less likely to stick to it. Even if you do stick to it for arguments sake, it could be a waste of time if it doesn’t move you in the direction you want to move in!

The final part of a SMART goal is that it is Time-bound. This aligns with both your goal being measurable and achievable. Can you quantify how long or when you expect to achieve this goal? Publishing one paper is measurable but publishing a paper in 12 months or in the next 12 hours impact both how you plan, approach, and ultimately complete the goal in and of itself. Make sure your time frames are realistic, and relevant too, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure before you’ve even started.

There you have it. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound – aka SMART. That’s an incredibly quick overview of goal setting for the year ahead. Focus on what you need to feel content first, then think about the more ambitious goals to be able to thrive and excel in your daily life. Remember the sky is the limit, and whenever you feel yourself going off track or slipping on your goals – take stock and work through those barriers. You got this, and may you have another incredible year ahead!  

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