How to Set Goals in Graduate School to Maximize Your Success

Do you feel frazzled and overwhelmed with all of the things you need to do? Is the workload of graduate school wearing you down?

A major problem for graduate students is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work being throw at them. I ran a survey of 300 graduate school students and the number one complaint from the group was the feeling of having too much work to do and not enough time to do it.

You have to learn how to set goals well so you can succeed in your graduate program.Some of the links included in this article are affiliate links for The Graduate School Site. For example, we frequently reference The Princeton Review’s “Better Scores or Your Money Back Guarantee.” If you make a purchase through one of these links, then we will get paid a small commission for the transaction. This commission will not increase your price for the service.

What’s Your Single Most Impactful Goal?

For most of you, finding something to do with your time isn’t a problem. You probably have a long list of tasks that need to be done. The problem is prioritizing your time and energy.

Productive people know the difference between checking off a to-do list and achieving important goals.

In the book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truths Behind Extraordinary Results, Gary Keller talks about the difference between a “success list” and a “to-do list.”

“To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

“The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truths Behind Extraordinary Results”

What goals are on your success list for graduate school?

  • Do you want to get published for original research?
  • Do you want to land a great job after finishing the program?
  • Are you continuing your education at a higher level after you finish this program?
  • Do you have completely different goal for your time in graduate school?

Depending on your real goal for graduate school, then your success list will look completely different. You probably cannot focus on all of these goals at one time and hope to master any one of them. You need to focus on a couple of goals that are important to you and devote a lot of your time and energy to seeing those goals accomplished.

Productive people are focused people.

Struggling with the goal of getting a great GRE score? Check out our GRE help articles and resources.

Protecting Your Productivity and Focus

Be careful with how you protect your environment when you are trying to get something done. One of the biggest destroyers of productivity is frequent interruptions and switching between tasks.

For those of us addicted to our cell phones, email, Facebook, or whatever method you use to stay connected with people, the temptation is to allow ourselves to take frequent small breaks from whatever task we are working on.

The American Psychological Association has some really strong language for those of us who think they are good “multitaskers.”

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time (emphasis added).American Psychological Association

“Multitasking: Switching costs”

Aim Small, Miss Small

How to Set Goals - Aim Small, Miss Small - Target

Have you ever seen the Mel Gipson movie The Patriot? It’s a story about a family that gets pulled into American Revolution against Britain. In one of the scenes, the father, Mel Gibson’s character, is giving instructions to two of his young son’s as they prepare to ambush a group of British soldiers. The boys have never been in combat before, so their father reminds them of the advice he gave them for shooting well.

“Aim Small, Miss Small”.

In the movie, the advice is to aim for something small like a button, so that if you miss the small target (the button) you can still hit the larger target (the soldier).

For productivity, the same advice applies for how you schedule your work. Instead of trying to work towards a major project goal and hope you are effective in making progress on it, aim for a specific and accomplishable task that you can complete in a single block of your working time.

Don’t make the mistake of sitting down to work with only your largest, most important goal in mind. You need to break the goal into smaller, manageable bits so that you can make significant program ever time you go to work.

The company General Electric came up with a goal setting model in the 1980’s that is extremely useful for organizing your work into productive blocks of time, the S.M.A.R.T. goal.

How to Set Goals the SMART Way

The SMART goal system has been used for decades in a lot of contexts, including athletic goal setting, corporate management,  military training, and individual achievement. The idea is really easy to understand and implement. SMART is an acronym that stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-Bound

The video explains the concept in more detail.

The idea behind developing SMART goals is to break your most important goals into achievable parts. You can combine the big vision goal setting of The One Thing with the practical steps of SMART goals to make major progress.

If you want to read more about SMART goals, there is a great section in the back of the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg where he explains how he used the SMART goal process to write the book.

You can also read the post by the team at MindTools, SMART Goals: How to Make Your Goals Achievable.

How to Make an Effective To-Do List

To-do lists are powerful. They allow you to organize your time and energy into productive tasks ahead of time so that your work leads to big progress in your goals.

If you have organized your work with to-do lists before, then you know how good it feels to complete a task and then cross that item off your to-do list. The feeling of crossing something off a to-do list is extremely satisfying.

Have you ever completed a task and then looked at your to-do list and realized that you never wrote it down? Did you write the task on your list and then crossed it off so that you could enjoy the satisfaction of doing so? I know I’ve done that many times before.

“To-do lists are great if you use them correctly,” Timothy Pychyl, at psychologist at Carleton University, told me. “But when people say things like ‘I sometimes write down easy items I can cross off right away, because it makes me feel good,’ that’s exactly the wrong way to create a to-do list. That signals you’re using it for mood repair, rather than to become productive.”

From Smarter, Faster, Better – Chapter 4 “Goal Setting”Charles Duhigg

Author, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

The danger of using to-do lists to organize your work is that you can get addicted to the feeling of crossing items off the list.

You can start planning your list around easy, quick, low-impact tasks instead of long-term, difficult, high impact tasks just because it’s faster and easier to complete them and get to check them off.

A list used in this way gives you the opposite effect that you are looking for. Instead of becoming more productive you end up wasting a lot of your time and energy on quick and unimportant tasks.

You need to combine powerful and meaningful goals with the steps that will actually progress you towards accomplishing them.

Attack the Most Difficult Task First

An effective way to maximize your productivity is to start your work with the most difficult task first.

My temptation when starting my work is to begin with some easy to complete, low-stress tasks so I can “get on a roll” and feel that I am making progress. The downside of this approach is that you only have so much energy and time in each day. If you waste the first part of your work session on simple and easy tasks, then you will be tired when you move on to more difficult tasks. It’s easy to feel that you have already worked enough to deserve a break, and you have not even accomplished anything meaningful.

A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.American Psychological Association

Is Willpower a Limited Resource?

So, if you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work—your ONE Thing—early, before your willpower is drawn down. Since your self-control will be sapped throughout the day, use it when it’s at full strength on what matters most.Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Don’t waste the first part of your work session on easy to check off to-do list items. Block out that time for your most difficult and taxing tasks. You will be the most energetic and clear minded in the beginning of working, so you can use that to your advantage to make real progress on important tasks.

You can always switch to easy to-do list task when you are tired and worn down from doing hard work.

How to Measure Your Success

Evaluating your progress is one of the toughest parts of setting and accomplishing goals. How do you know how well you are doing in your goals?

If you made some SMART goals as part of your planning process, then measuring your success is fairly straight forward. Part of those goals is a “Measurable” aspect that allows you to know ahead of time whether you have completed a goal or not. Once you have achieved the criteria that you set as part of your SMART goal, then you are done.

The harder part is to decide whether the progress you have made is really advancing your larger strategic goals. Are you heading in the right direction? Are these achievements leading you in a direction that you want to go?

To measure your overall success you need to review your big “One Thing” style goals on a regular basis. Do those goals still make sense? Are you moving towards achieving them?

You cannot do this kind of review too often or you will tire yourself out with decision fatigue. Set yourself a reasonable schedule that works for you. I review my strategic goals every couple of months to evaluate whether I want to continue a pattern or make a change in my strategies.

Forbes has an interesting article Are You On Track To Reach Your Goals? A Seven-Point Mid-Year Review Checklist that goes through the steps of a mid-year review. You can use the same steps on a more frequent basis to evaluate your goals.

The author Caroline Ceniza-Levine assesses goals by a couple of metrics, including whether:

  • Is the goal still worth pursuing?
  • Is your progress on track to accomplish the goal in the timeframe you set?
  • Should you increase the ambition of your goal?