This time last year I spoke about how much I disliked the New Year, on the grounds that I had always been lucky enough to like the last one. So rather than talk specifically about New Year’s resolutions, which more often than not seem to be broken within days, I thought I’d talk more generally about goals today.
I wonder if you managed to achieve your goals for these holidays? The Fifth Form is doing mocks today, so they are not here to assess whether they worked the hours I suggested in weeks one and three of the holidays, but I can say pretty truthfully that I stuck to my own part of that particular bargain, whilst ensuring that I had time off over Christmas to recharge batteries and spend some great time with the family. I did, however, set one ridiculous goal which, given the festivities, a large family and my other work, I was never likely to achieve – and sure enough I got nowhere near it. I had picked up two books at the beginning of the holiday which I had wanted to read by the start of this term, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell (which I suspect many of you may have already read) and a new biography of Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy (which may not have been quite so high on people’s Christmas lists). The problem was that they are both over 600 pages long and, excellent books though they are, I have probably only managed a few hundred pages of each so far.
I would like to bet that the vast majority of you boys who needed to do some work over the holidays either did not manage to do the hours you had hoped for, or spent most of yesterday doing essays you could have written weeks ago. Why do we always do this to ourselves? Well, I think the answer is because, although we are constantly doing it and we really ought to have learnt by now, goal setting is one of the most difficult things we do in life. At its core, if you set unrealistic goals (such as my 1200 words in a couple of very busy weeks), then you feel deflated at the end of it and frustrated that you have not achieved what you wanted to; yet if you set goals which are too easily achievable, then there is a hollow victory and the feeling that one could have done so much more – and, as you know, I am not one for regret.
However difficult goal setting is, it is an important skill to master. I would also imagine that many of you will have goals for the term ahead, either consciously or
subconsciously, perhaps even talked through with your parents over the weekend, or in the form of a New Year’s resolution. A useful test for them is whether or not they are SMART goals. SMART, as some of you will know, is an acronym which dictates that goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, results focussed and time bound. Let’s test that out on one of my own worst ever new year’s resolutions. When I spent a year at Cambridge, I decided that I would go for a run every day from January 1st until the cricket season started; you should know by now that I adore cricket, but you may not know that I loathe running. Well, I did indeed go running, but I am ashamed to say that my final run took place on January 8th – not remotely close to even the earliest start in the history of the first-class cricket calendar, which that summer (as it happened) was. Looking back, it was not surprising that I failed so miserably. Taking the SMART test, my goal was not specific (I never decided how far to run or when); it was not therefore measurable (what counted as a run and what did not?); it was not achievable (or at the very least I was almost certain to fail!); it was not results focussed as I had not specified a target; it was perhaps time bound, but the timing (ie my running every day for three months) was totally unrealistic. Perhaps if I had broken it down into smaller, more manageable and more specific chunks, I might have stood more chance.
So if you have set a goal for the term ahead, test yourself on whether or not it is a SMART goal. If it is not, consider tweaking it so that it is. If you have not set any goals at all, how about trying? Set something which is at the upper limit of what you are capable of and then follow the SMART principles; more often than not, goal setting, which is much harder than you might think, can be a key driver of competitive people such as are most of you in this Chapel today.