2023-4 exam year
Educational Advice

The psychology of goal setting: how to help teens set effective goals

As young children and all the way through to adulthood, we’re taught to think about the next milestone and the next achievement in life. While this can come with pressure, having goals and a clear vision can help set us up to achieve the things we want.

Encouraging your teen to set goals can be challenging – pressuring them or placing your own hopes on them, doesn’t usually end well. But goal setting can also help them build self-worth and it’s beneficial for their mental health, according to research.

However, what we don’t think about enough is the strategy that helps to set ourselves up for success – and allowing ourselves to enjoy the process along the way.

By helping your teen structure their goal setting, you can help encourage a growth mindset, teach them about self-belief and help them feel motivated to achieve what they want. Here, we dive into the psychology of goal setting – how to kickstart the conversation and how to set realistic goals to help them consistently achieve them.

Why should your teen bother setting goals?

Besides helping your teen think about their future, goal setting comes with plenty of other benefits. Goal setting can:

  • Help teens focus on what’s important to them 
  • Teach teens to manage their time and plan ahead
  • Teach them accountability and how to take ownership for their learning and mistakes
  • Increase motivation and their sense of achievement
  • Help your teen feel good about themselves

It can be helpful to explain that goal setting is a skill that takes practice to master and can feel really fulfilling when you consistently reach your goals.

What is goal setting?

Goal setting is the act of selecting a target or objective you want to achieve. It’s also about what you’re willing to do (or sacrifice) to reach that goal. James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits, explains goal setting using the analogy of a boat – with the rudder as your goal and the oars as the process for achieving that goal. 

“Your goals are like the rudder on the boat. They set the direction and determine where you go. If you commit to one goal, then the rudder stays put and you continue moving forward. If you flip-flop between goals, then the rudder moves all around and it is easy to find yourself rowing in circles.

“However, there is another part of the boat that is even more important than the rudder: the oars. If the rudder is your goal, then the oars are your process for achieving it. While the rudder determines your direction, it is the oars that determine your progress. 

“Goals are useful for setting the direction. Systems are great for actually making progress. In fact, the primary benefit of having a goal is that it tells you what sort of system you need to put in place. However, the system itself is what actually achieved the results.”

For example, if your teen wants to write a book, their system is the writing schedule that they follow each week. Or, if your teen wants to become a pharmacist, their system is the research, work experience and training they need to do to break into the industry.

How to help them set goals they’ll stick to

For teens, goal setting can be daunting. They might have big creative ideas or career dreams but don’t know how to break them down or organise their goal into achievable steps. 

They might also set huge goals like, ‘get the highest grades in all of my GCSE exams,’ and be disappointed if they don’t get there. Here are 6 ways to help your teen set effective goals.

1. Don’t force them into goal setting

It’s better not to schedule in the goal setting. See if you can bring it about naturally. After exams, you could ask them what their next step might be. If they express an interest in doing better in a subject or want to learn about a specific career path, you can support them by offering to help: ‘That’s a great idea, would you like me to help you make a plan?’ 

2. Make sure it’s their goal, not yours

Allow your teen to set their own goal and try not to put your goals or hopes on them. They’re probably under a lot of pressure with schoolwork and exams so try not to control or pressure them further.

3. Help make their goals SMART

Using the SMART framework when setting goals can help set your teen up for success. You can help to talk them through these stages:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Attainable
R – Relevant
T – Timely

4. Focus on one goal at a time

James Clear suggests being ruthless with goals, so you can focus on making progress rather than feeling overwhelmed. “One of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have. In other words, your goals are competing with one another for your time and attention. Whenever you chase a new goal, you have to pull focus and energy from your other pursuits. 

“One of the fastest ways to make progress on your goals is to simply press pause on less important things and focus on one goal at a time. Sometimes you just need to reorganise your priorities a little bit.”

5. Explain that it’s about the journey

When it comes to goal setting, you don’t want to teach your teen they can’t be satisfied now, and that they’ll only be happy once they reach their goal – society does this enough for them! 

So, explain to them that they can feel fulfilled in all aspects of the goal setting process. Breaking things down into small, achievable chunks can help them feel like they’re always accomplishing something.

6. Help them think about the why

Everyone is more likely to achieve a goal if we consider the deeper value or purpose behind it. It can be helpful for your teen to think about the type of person they want to be, not just want they want to do. 

For example, they may want to be a healthy, knowledgeable or kind person – setting goals to help them become this person can also be very motivating. Start by asking them what’s important to them: ’Clearly, staying fit/being smart/caring for your friends is important to you – tell me more about it.’

Goal setting conversation starters

These questions will help get your teen thinking and potentially start setting their own goals. Try talking your teen through these prompts and perhaps even writing them down so they can reflect and use for future goal setting.

  • What’s important to me at the moment?
  • What do I want to work towards?
  • What do I want to do – both in general life and career-wise?
  • What kind of person do I want to be?
  • What do I need to achieve my goals?
  • How long do I need to get there?
  • How will I measure my success?

Did you know that a private tutor will not only support your teen’s studies but also help them with their goals and achievements? Find the right tutor for them here.

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