Goal setting for study success


Whether it’s your first or final semester of study, the start of the academic year can feel overwhelming. When there’s a lot to do it can be hard to know where to begin, and it’s easy to put things off.

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. One analysis of research on procrastination reported rates can be as high as 80–95% among university students. Learning how to set regular, achievable goals is a useful skill for study and for life. Goals give you something to work towards and help you stay focussed and motivated.

What do you need to do?

The first step is to decide exactly what you need to do – make your goals specific and realistic. If your goal is large or longer-term, it’s a good idea to break it up into smaller sub-goals. This can help you avoid procrastination and stay motivated as you reach each milestone.

When does it have to be done?

Next, commit to a timeframe for both short- and longer-term goals. Set yourself deadlines for each small sub-goal. Before you know it, you may have accomplished the larger goal, even if it felt impossible in the beginning.

To kickstart the process, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is my long-term goal? (e.g. complete thesis by end of year)
  • What is my short-term goal over the next 4 weeks? (e.g. confirm thesis topic)
  • What can I do today to make a start? (e.g. book a meeting with my supervisor to discuss topic ideas)

Still not sure where to start?

The SMART theory is a handy framework designed to help people define and achieve goals. SMART is backed by academic research and has been in use for many years.

Specific. Set goals that are specific. Think about it in terms of who, where, when, why and what (e.g. instead of ‘pass chemistry’, your goal could be ‘attend all chemistry lectures’).

Measurable. Set goals you can measure. Include a quantity like ‘how many’ or ‘how much’ (e.g. ‘read 10 pages of economics text book each day, 5 days a week’).

Achievable. Set goals you can achieve. If you set the bar too high you might feel discouraged (e.g. instead of ‘win the university medal’, your goal could be ‘get Credits in all exams this semester’).

Realistic. Set goals that are realistic. Consider your daily routine and other responsibilities (e.g. it might be hard to study for 3 hours a night if you don’t finish work until 10pm).

Time-related. Set goals that have a timeframe. Having deadlines can help keep you motivated and avoid procrastination (e.g. ‘by 5pm Saturday I’ll have written the first 500 words of the essay’).


You could also try some of the tips below if you’re struggling under your workload, putting things off or losing track of all you need to do.

Make a to-do list Record all your tasks in a diary or app and enjoy the feeling as you tick things off.
Prioritise Decide what needs to be done now versus later.
Tell a friend Set deadlines and tell a friend – being accountable to others might help you avoid procrastinating.
Find balance Don’t forget to rest and play – it’s hard to be productive 100% of the time.
Remove distractions When it’s time to work, remove distracting devices (e.g. try putting your phone in a drawer or another room).
Manage stress Stress sometimes helps us get things done, but too much can cause problems with your work and affect your health and wellbeing.
Get real Try to set achievable goals in realistic timeframes to avoid becoming discouraged.
Ask for help If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider talking to friends, family, academic staff or a counsellor.
Move Exercise can help improve concentration levels – even a walk around the block can clear the mind.
Reward yourself Whether it’s a cup of tea or a night out, don’t forget to reward your hard work.


Stay on track with an app

There are many free goal setting apps available, including Goal Setter, Good Habit Maker, Habit Bull, and My Study Life. You can find reviews of these apps and more helpful tools at Reach Out (au.reachout.com/tools-and-apps).

American Psychological Association. Procrastination or ‘intentional delay’? [Online; last updated Jan 2010, accessed Feb 2019] Available from: www.apa.org

beyondblue. Setting goals and planning your day [Online; last updated May 2017, accessed Feb 2019] Available from: www.beyondblue.org.au

Flinders University: Student Health and Wellbeing. Procrastination – Part 1 – the basics [Online; last updated Jul 2017, accessed Feb 2019] Available from: blogs.flinders.edu.au

healthdirect. Goal setting [Online; last updated Nov 2018, accessed Feb 2019] Available from: www.healthdirect.gov.au

NSW Government Agency for Clinical Innovation. SMART goals [Online; last updated June 2017, accessed Feb 2019] Available from: www.aci.health.nsw.gov.au

ReachOut. How to set goals [Online; accessed Feb 2019] Available from: au.reachout.com

ReachOut. 10 ways to get stuff done [Online; accessed Feb 2019] Available from: au.reachout.com

ReachOut. Tools and apps [Online; accessed Feb 2019] Available from: au.reachout.com

Steel P. The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol Bull. 2007; 133(1): 65-94.