By Stephanie White

Clearing the Way: Six Questions for Setting Goals

I’ve actually been productive on this rainy, unseasonably cold Friday in June. On most days like this — especially when they’re incongruous for the season — I let myself snuggle into non-motivation with a little tea or a lot of Facebook. But today, I’ve been able to get through a solid mass of the flotsam and jetsam (as a colleague calls those little tasks that always add up) that float around dissertator status.

I’ve made major headway on an IRB application, emailed participants about a pilot study, taken my approved survey protocol and translated it into a working online survey, and responded to about a gazillion emails. I’m pretty proud of myself. Yet, as with so many wonderful practices that have helped me in grad school, I actually have the Writing Center to thank. I work at the writing center at my university, but I’m also a regular user of it, and I always appreciate what I learn there.

Our Writing Center recently started holding writers’ retreats — events where people sign up to come to the center and, well, write. During these facilitated sessions, undergraduates and graduate students first respond to a set of goal-setting questions and share their answers in small groups. Then they head to tables, corners of the room, or cubicles that are available and chicken-peck away. At the end of four hours, students come back to their small groups to talk about what they accomplished. These goal-setting questions ended up being so helpful at the retreats that our staff have been passing them around and putting them to use ourselves. Here they are:

Goal-Setting Questions

  1. What do you plan to work on today?
  2. Aiming high: What are your wildest dreams for what you'd like to accomplish today?
  3. What's a reasonably ambitious but realistic goal you hope to accomplish today?
  4. What is the minimum you would be happy to accomplish today?
  5. Where will you begin today?
  6. What will you do if you get stuck?

I’ve started taking about two minutes to answer these questions every time I sit down to work for even an hour, and I’ve been amazed at how useful they are. As I type out my answers at the beginning of a work session, I feel the pressure lifting off my chest. Especially when I get to questions three and four, I start breathing more deeply, and I feel my shoulders return to a natural position. As my list of tasks narrows, my motivation to accomplish them increases. In other words, I recognize that I may not be able to accomplish all that I think I should be able to accomplish in one day. And that’s okay.

As friends in my graduate women’s group pointed out, this shift in perspective applies to much more than writing. One of the women described an exercise inspired by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema for women who get depressed because they feel like they’re constantly failing to live up to their expectations for themselves. The exercise involves writing down an ideal list of accomplishments — what we really hope to do in a day — and then spending the next couple of days listing what actually gets done. For most women, these lists are utterly inconsistent. Many of us get depressed that we’re not accomplishing all the tasks we assume we should, but rarely do our expectations match the reality of what can actually get done.

In graduate school, the competition is intense as we struggle for jobs, attention from advisors, or reputations as the smartest, or the hardest working, or even the most balanced. We have so many spoken and unspoken expectations circling around us. As a result, I’m constantly second-guessing my daily goals. I feel guilty while working on emails, because I think I should be drafting that intro chapter to my dissertation. I’m nervous about writing, since I think I need to do more research first. I feel anxious as I do research, because I should be spending more time with my friends. I hurry through lunch with friends, because I really should be volunteering more at church. And then I check my email again, and the cycle continues. I’ve never been convinced that what I do is enough, and grad school has exacerbated this neurosis exponentially.

So when I stop to break my goals down into categories before I sit down to work, it seems downright magical that they get so simple and focused. The palpable feeling of deeper breaths and more relaxed shoulders echoes the shift in my brain about expectations for myself. Listing one or two items as my bare-minimum goals feels almost like cheating, yet I’m so much more encouraged to do those two things as I settle in for the day. And, amazingly enough, that motivation quickly translates to additional tasks once I’ve completed the bare minimum. I often find myself tackling items listed under “reasonable goals” or even “wildest dreams,” because I feel satisfied and confident about what I’m getting done.

Through prayer, I’ve also begun to learn about how my ultimate goal — to love God — fits into my goals every day. By laying out my tasks and aims, and prayerfully prioritizing them, I can let go of what I think I should be able to do and focus instead on what God is calling me to do. I have to trust that God will take care of the rest, and that’s hard. So as I go out on this precarious limb each day, I’m trying to understand more about how my loving God is waiting to steady me if I lose my balance. I’m beginning to be more confident that God’s grace is enough for whatever goals really are important. And I’m finding joy in doing what I can, doing it well, and not doing more.

It feels amazing to get done everything I’ve set out to do in a day, but that’s only possible if I limit my expectations. No — that’s not the right word. This isn’t about limiting. It’s about clearing away the distractions so the focal point can shine. Like rearranging a room so your favourite chair is front and centre, or turning down a great song so you can hear your friend better on the phone, I’m allowing God to help me sift through my quotidian callings.

And now I’ve written this today, too. I am on a roll.

About the Author

Stephanie White is a member of the English Language and Literature faculty at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. She teaches writing and rhetoric while researching composition pedagogy and service-learning. She and her husband Andrew have a darling baby girl and very helpful neighbours.

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