When we set our New Year’s resolutions for 2020, I am sure that social distancing and stay-at-home orders were not included. However, even though our world has been turned upside down by COVID-19 and a global pandemic, many of us want to continue to progress towards our graduate degrees. If you are anything like me, once you heard you would be working from home for the foreseeable future you started planning all of the writing, data analysis, and reading that you could finally catch up on. You started making a to-do list of things to get done, and before you realized it, that list was long enough to reach to Mars and back. As a result, instead of tapping into a newfound productivity, I found myself overwhelmed.
In an effort to remain focused and productive during these unprecedented times, I have begun to approach my to-do list of academic tasks differently – by setting SMART goals. The benefits of SMART goals are that they allow you to clearly set your intentions, focus your effort, time, and resources productively, and increase the likelihood of accomplishing your goals.
When setting a goal, it should be specific. By outlining exactly what you hope to accomplish, you create a solid foundation from which you can focus your effort. A specific goal should be able to answer the following five “W” questions:
- What do I want to accomplish?
- Why is this goal important?
- Who is involved to achieve this goal?
- Where will this goal be located? This question will not always be applicable, especially for personal goals, but if a location or specific event is involved in your goal, identify it here.
- Which resources or obstacles may be involved?
If you find that your goal is not realistic due to the number of obstacles you would face, refine the specifics of your goal to tackle one of those obstacles. For example, if my goal is to “create a computer test for my new study” but I do not know how to code a computer program, then I can refine my goal to “learn how to code in Python.”
A proper goal is a measurable goal. Measurable goals are more tangible because they allow you to track your progress and know when you’ve reached the finish line. Tracking your progress increases your likelihood of meeting your deadlines, plus it is exciting to watch yourself get closer to achieving your goal. Therefore, ask yourself what metrics are you going to use to determine when you have met your goal? If it is a larger project, consider setting specific tasks as milestones to accomplish.
It is important that you create a goal that inspires motivation, not discouragement. Have an honest reality check with yourself to make sure that your goal is stretching your abilities, but within what is possible. Ask yourself, how can I accomplish this goal? How realistic is this goal, based on other constraints (financial factors, tools/skills needed, etc.)? You may need to develop new skills or find additional resources in order to make your goal attainable. Most importantly, be careful to not set a goal that is within someone else’s power to control. For example, “get my paper published” depends on the opinions of the journal editor and reviewers. However, “finish writing my manuscript and submit my paper for publication” is entirely up to you.
Relevance refers to making sure that your goal aligns with your broader career goals and plans and that there is a real benefit that comes with meeting it. You should avoid setting goals just for the sake of setting them and instead evaluate why the goal is actually important to you. Once you identify the key benefit, it can be helpful to incorporate it into your goal. For a relevant goal, the answer will be “yes” to the following questions:
- Does this seem worthwhile?
- Is this the right time?
- Does this match my other efforts/needs?
- Am I the right person to reach this goal?
- Is it applicable in my current socio-economic environment?
The important final step in creating a SMART goal is setting a realistic deadline for the goal. Having deadlines provides you with something to focus on and work towards. If you allow your goals to stretch into infinity, you likely will not succeed. Ask yourself specific questions about the goal deadline and, if it is a longer-term goal, identify what can be accomplished at different stages within that time period.
COVID-19 and working through your SMART goals
By working through the SMART acronym to create your goals, you are able to clearly identify what needs to be accomplished, by when, and what success will look like. This goal setting method is helpful because it removes vague objectives and guessing. While you should be prepared to ask yourself a lot of questions, the result will be a fine-tuned goal that is actually attainable. To make the experience even less daunting, con-sider downloading one of the many SMART goal templates that have been made widely available online for free download. Once you have created your SMART goal, be sure to write your goal down, set regular progress check-ins, and celebrate your wins along the way (even the small ones) to keep yourself on the road to success.
You may even want to consider writing a SMARTER goal. This acronym adds “Evaluate” and “Redo” to the process to ensure that you are constantly evaluating your goals and resetting them as needed. After all, career directions change and personal goals evolve, so a goal you set six months ago may no longer make sense. Either way, whether you write a SMART goal or a SMARTER goal, having more clarity about what you hope to achieve will undoubtedly drive you closer to success.
I do not go through this process with all of my goals (daily to-do list items, such as answering emails or grading papers, for example, do not require SMART goals), but it does help me identify my major goals and outline the smaller steps that I will need to accomplish.
However, given the unprecedented stress set forth by the coronavirus pandemic, do not demand an amplified level of productivity from yourself. As always, prioritize your health and safety (physical and psychological) above your productivity. Learning new skills are a bonus, not the expectation, during this uncertain time. Instead consider smaller, manageable tasks that are not over-whelming but will still contribute to your overall productivity and goal achievement, such as literature reviews, manuscript outlines or reading articles. Alternatively, find new ways to collaborate with others on bigger projects that you are working on. Recently, I came across a tweet that has gone viral that read: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” As we all work through the stressful and emotional toll brought on by COVID-19, it is acceptable to relax your expectations and approach yourself and others with kindness and empathy.
While we will not be able to escape our new reality, hopefully this new approach to goal setting will help you manage some of the stress and uncertainty by keeping you connected to your academic work.