The Philosophy of Education: Setting Goals

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a long-term large assignment or a test to study for? If so, when you felt this way, did you sit down and grind through the assignment or studying until you finished? Or did you procrastinate and then stay up all night the day before to do it, and likely not do a good job? I believe a major cause of this phenomenon is setting improper or ineffective goals for ourselves.

When we set broad and far-reaching goals for ourselves, we often do not know where to start and thus feel overwhelmed. For example, this quarter I had to write a 1,200+ word literature review-type paper for UWP 102B. I could write about any topic I wanted in the biological sciences.

At first, I felt overwhelmed; I did not know what to write about, where to do research, what to argue, etc. In this mental state, I could not write or even prepare to write the paper. Because my mind was full of worry and feelings of hopelessness, I felt like giving up and distracting myself with something else, procrastinating.

Instead, I divided the large, overwhelming goal of completing the paper into smaller, manageable goals. First, I found a topic that I was interested in. Second, I gathered research articles about my chosen topic. Third, I analyzed those research articles to put them into a coherent body of knowledge. Fourth, I drew an arguable conclusion from that body of research. Fifth, I wrote an outline of what I would argue and my supporting evidence. Finally, I wrote the paper.

While the overall goal of writing the paper from nothing seemed hopeless, each of the six sub-goals was manageable and achievable. Thus, by mentally identifying and organizing the steps I had to take to achieve my ultimate goal, my anxiety disappeared.

Similarly, if you were going on a road trip to Las Vegas, you would probably look at a map first to plan your route; you wouldn’t just get in your car and start driving.

Many of us commit a different but common error with goal setting: we, sometimes unconsciously, change our goal and then become frustrated that we did not accomplish the new goal.

For example, many times, friends have told me that they went to office hours to ask about a specific concept but left frustrated by the professor’s attitude or perceived condescension. In response, I ask, “Did the professor answer your question?” If the professor did not, then the student is rightly frustrated that he or she did not achieve his or her goal.

However, many times the students answer that the professor indeed answered their question but they were still frustrated with the professor. Notice the goal switch: the student went in with the conscious goal of asking a question but left unhappy that a different goal was not achieved.

If you notice this goal switch happening to you, first ask yourself what your unconscious goal was, and then ask yourself why you have that goal. Possibly, my friends went with the unconscious goal of wanting approval and thus an ego boost from the professor, which only bubbled up to conscious awareness when it was not met.

If you experience this scenario in office hours, think of the reverse case. If you went to a party to have fun, would you leave frustrated that you didn’t learn anything about chemical bonding? The office hours scenario is the same way: if you went to office hours to learn about chemical bonding, would you leave frustrated that you didn’t have fun?

Setting goals for yourself is highly effective if the goals feel achievable. Challenging goals are achievable, but overwhelming goals feel impossible. Goals can be as simple as “This afternoon I will do the laundry, clean my room and then do my homework. After I finish those three tasks, I will play for the rest of the day.”

Mentally organizing ourselves with goals greatly helps to increase our productivity and reduce our anxiety. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

 

To share how you set goals for yourself, contact WILLIAM CONNER at wrconner@ucdavis.edu.