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  • Writer's pictureAna Pineda

How to set goals that will keep you focused and productive as a scientist (with my main mistakes)

Updated: Apr 16

This is that period of the year when you may start setting goals for the next year. You may even think of new year resolutions. And you may have heard that actually, new year resolutions don’t work. What works, is setting goals, and actually, science shows that when you go through the process of goal setting and you WRITE them down, you are 42% more likely to achieve those goals...and I want that for you! So I have prepared a workbook to help you setting those goals after reviewing the past year. I hope with this post you get motivated to go through the process of goal setting. Especially after doing the year-end review of this other post.

As a scientist, goal setting wasn’t a thing in my life. Sure, I had things I wanted to achieve...finish a paper, do a series of experiments, get a grant. But nothing consciously thought out. Nothing really ambitious where I’d spend some time planning the steps how I’d achieve it. Not evaluating if that was what I wanted and needed to do. And definitely, not a monthly, or quarterly check to see where I was and if something needed to adjust.

Then as a postdoc in the NIOO, we heard something new was part of our year review chat with our supervisor, we were gonna set S.M.A.R.T goals. Many of us were like “What???”. So we received a workshop to teach us how to do it (the learner inside me couldn’t be happier). If you are also thinking “What???”, this is what S.M.A.R.T. stands for:

S: Specific

M: Measurable

A: Achievable

R: Relevant

T: Time-bound

And if you'd like to do that kind of workshop, check my online 2.5-h workshop "S.M.A.R.T. goals for scientists (the mindful way)". You can do it at any time, just grab a nice drink, play some music, and dive on reflecting and planning!

To have a look at some SMART goals examples for research, you can get here that workbook where I share my goal-setting process with some examples of SMART goals. So there I went, work on my S.M.A.R.T goals, spent some time thinking, and then I nicely wrote them in a document. I discussed them with Martijn, my supervisor, during our year-review meeting, we thought they were realistic, and then back to work. But there were some problems. And I want to share with you what were the main three mistakes so you can do better!

1- They were realistic.

Goals should not be realistic. They need to be ambitious. Which would be in the middle of realistic and delusional! How to do that? Ask yourself, “If failing is not a possibility, what would be my goal?”. What needs to be realistic is the plan to get there!

2- I didn’t have a detailed plan with steps to achieve my goals

And that plan is even more important than setting your goals. As James Clear writes, setting a goal is the easy part. The challenge is to be able of standing the “struggles” you are willing to go through to achieve those goals. For example, in my online course on Mindful Scientific Writing and Productivity, the students work on developing a writing system. Writing that experimental paper could be your goal. But creating a system where you have a writing schedule to write consistently is key to finish that paper (and where the main difficulty is!). In the words of James Clear again, “The primary benefit of having a goal is that it tells you what sort of system you need to put in place”.

3- I never reviewed my goals

I forgot about that document. Because I, as probably you feel right now, was busy! Working on all the to-do things was enough. Anyways I remembered most of those goals ;) What can you do differently? A key step of goal setting is reviewing those goals. Every week, every month, every quarter...only then you realize if what you do daily is aligned with your goals. And you’ll see if you still need to reach that goal, whether you may need to change something in your approach. In the free weekly planner that you can download here, there is a specific section to write down your 3-month projects, don’t miss it!

Now my goal-setting process has become more refined. From S.M.A.R.T, I have moved to S.M.A.R.T.E.R goals (thanks to Michael Hyatt, my favourite productivity author!). I’ve prepared for you a workbook where I share my goal-setting process with some examples of SMART goals. And you can use it to set your goals for every month, quarter, or year! And it’s a great exercise to do at the beginning of the year. Just remember, the important thing is not to achieve these goals, but the person you become in the process. Or like a famous quote in Yoga classes during forward- folds…” It’s not about touching the floor with your fingers, but what you learn on your way down”.


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