The great expanse of time that is a life consists of many days, weeks, and months waiting to be filled. Our earliest years are marked by formal education and structure imposed by parents and other caretakers, not to mention a dedicated break in the form of summer vacation. By early adulthood — and beyond — we’re largely accountable for our time. What to do with this time can prove confounding, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” can attest. When it comes to setting goals and organizing time in adulthood, we’re left to our own devices. “The longer away in time something is, the more abstract or high-level our conception of it is, and we’re not as concrete about what it would be,” says Anita Williams Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “But as you bring things closer, people have an easier time.”
While it’s important to set goals, the roadmap for how to attain them can be murky. Instead of embarking without a plan toward broad ambitions, there’s value in incremental objectives in service of a larger aim. Take a page from the educational system and divide the future into “semesters” — traditionally 15 to 17 weeks long at American colleges — in which to implement minigoals to help get you where you want to go. Use the traditional academic year as a guide to help you stay on track, says Rachel Wu, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. Many community classes and educational opportunities are offered roughly on a quarter or semester basis. “At the very least, it will help people, maybe, feel young again. I think that’s a huge benefit,” Wu says. “They can think back to that point in their life when they had that kind of organization and that might be something that works for them.” (You don’t need to follow a traditional academic structure by any means, but having a firm start and end date within a few months’ span in which to focus on certain skills or activities can help keep you motivated.)
Just as students tackle specific courses while working toward a degree or certification, you can apply that same focus on targeted aims for clearly defined periods of time, inching you closer to your larger goal in the process. Not only can continuing to learn in any capacity help preserve cognitive function, but giving yourself consistent goals helps to challenge you. Maybe you want to practice speaking up in meetings for a few months in service of your larger goal of bolstering your confidence. Or you could dedicate the next “semester” to saving $100 a month to put toward a vacation fund. Creating a deadline for a specific action spurs motivation. “If you think about your career goal, [it] is something you need to do in the next several years. It’s unclear what needs to happen now,” says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “When you think about this in terms of what needs to happen in the next 14 weeks, something needs to happen this week. You have to do it right now.”
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How to set semester-long goals
Big-picture goals tend to fall into broad categories, such as financial, relational, professional, and health, says Fishbach, who is also the author of Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. However, goals are more likely to be achieved if they’re specific. This specificity is where people become unique in their pursuits. You should aim to be as precise as possible when it comes to your semester-long missions.
First, think about what larger goal you’d like to work toward this semester — select the “major” for which you’re picking “classes.” What is presently important to you? Say you’d like to dedicate more time toward creative projects this semester. How, specifically, will you foster that creativity? Maybe you’ll commit to practicing guitar every other day for 30 minutes or you’ll sign up for a pottery class that meets weekly.
It can be beneficial to bundle goals if you’re prioritizing multiple new skills during one semester, Wu says. Just as school curriculums are organized so students can make connections between subjects, you can structure your own semester similarly. “Math might relate to art and art might relate to history,” she says.
Plan when and how often you’ll practice your minigoals as much as possible, but allow yourself flexibility for any unexpected disruptions, such as needing to skip a class in order to stay home with your sick child.
Check in intermittently to gauge your progress, says Cece Xie, a writer and lawyer who has used the semester approach in her own life. While you don’t need to quiz yourself as rigidly as you would in school, use periodic assessments to evaluate whether you’re refining new skills or making strides toward your semester goals. This could look like taking time at the end of each week to schedule workouts for the coming days if your overall mission is to run a 5K. “Really prevent yourself from placing any judgment or evaluation of how it’s going until at the end,” Xie says. “Kind of like getting your report card at the end.”
After about the length of a semester — again, 15 to 17 weeks, or roughly four to five months — measure your overall growth. If you didn’t accomplish your goal of reading a book a month, consider what barriers you didn’t anticipate prior to the semester. (Perhaps you read at a slower pace or doze off after a few pages.) Adjust your expectations and set a new related goal — a specific time spent reading a day versus a number of books — or shoot for a similar objective — listening to audiobooks during your commute. If you’re having success with your minigoal of learning to cook one new meal a week, you can continue to challenge yourself with more difficult dishes or an additional new recipe a week.
You can also use the end of the semester to pivot to something else entirely. (However, if you’re attempting to learn a new skill, like a language or an instrument, Wu suggests giving yourself at least a year before deciding if you want to move on.)
After a few months, these short-term ambitions won’t be entirely ingrained as a habit, Fishbach says, so it’s important to continue them on top of any new semester aims. Still, you’ll have become accustomed to, say, crocheting, and you won’t need to be as purposeful with setting aside time to the practice, Woolley says. “I think that’s important to keep it going, but it doesn’t require as much active concentration or focus by that point,” she says.
Don’t feel limited to just one minigoal per semester either, Xie says. If you have the time and mental space, you can, for instance, implement social and health-related aims for the semester.
Why semesters are an ideal length of time to focus on a goal
Modeling your life after academic years allows you to adequately mark your process. It’s difficult to determine improvement with daily or even weekly goals, Fishbach says. But with a quarterly or biannual milestone, you’re more easily able to track your progress; you can more clearly look back on what you’ve learned after a 20-week intro to coding class as opposed to after a few days of instruction. The end of a semester allows for these report cards. “It just helps you feel that you’re growing as a person,” Fishbach says. “You’re not the person you were three months ago.”
This reflection is crucial, Woolley says. At the end of the semester, you can determine whether the minigoal is moving you toward your larger ambitions or if you’d rather focus on something else entirely. “Maybe there’s an adjustment you want to make,” she says. “Maybe you want to keep working toward the same sort of goal, but now you know more.”
Semesters can help you maintain motivation
A self-imposed semester system also lends itself to increased motivation due, in part, to the fresh start effect, where people are more driven to pursue goals after a “fresh start” like a new year or semester. (Fully embrace the back-to-school energy and buy some new school supplies, Wu says, “and then learn something.”) With goals that have an endpoint, called an all-or-nothing goal, Fishbach says, motivation increases as you approach the deadline. Having a distinct cutoff to your personal semester can help you stay driven knowing there’s an end in sight.
This manageable time expectation makes it easier to set more realistic goals, Woolley says. You might not get a promotion five months after starting a new job, but you can focus on your leadership skills for that period of time, which may set you up for the promotion later down the line. When you consistently reach your self-set milestones, you’re more motivated to continue, inching you closer toward your larger aims. “Most people,” Woolley says, “if they have some success, often that motivates them to either want to do something more challenging of the same sort or just more of it.”
However, taking the first step toward a goal can prove the most daunting. Wu frequently works with students who have difficulty setting goals beyond earning a certain dollar amount. Incremental improvements are a way to ease into long-term planning. “Having short-term goals is good because it gets people going and might get people out of a rut,” Wu says. “It might get people off their butts and doing something.”