​Happy New Year! 

Sunday, December 31, everywhere I looked there were stories reflecting back on the year that was 2017. There were highs, lows, reflections on achievements made, and regrets for the goals left hanging. When the clock hit midnight on the first day of 2018, I’d been long asleep. Winter break is long and exhausting. My neighbors woke me up to the sounds of their fireworks making our whole block sound like something we should evacuate. Later that morning, those stories from the day before turned into new tunes about resolutions, Whole 30 diets, and hopes for what 2018 could be. Somehow, January 1 brought us a brand new day where regrets from literally yesterday turned into goals for the next 364. 

But you’re no stranger to setting goals, are you? 

You work in schools. Goals come standard with your job description and daily routines. Where the rest of us set goals to walk more and watch Netflix less, you’re expected to set goals that change school climate, increase graduation rates, and improve the quality of education for every student you serve. You know, little things. Then, you’re expected to meet those challenges. 

When we decided to write an article about goal setting, I wondered what I could possibly add to your arsenal you didn’t already have in the first place. Once you know about SMART Goals, what else is there?

Over the last month, I’ve read a lot about setting goals: Blog posts on the impact of 1% gains, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, TED Talk play lists, and dense research published in journals spanning disciplines. They all suggest similar strategies, but here are four ideas to stick in your back pocket the next time a goal-setting session happens in your team meeting.

Use Present Tense

Writing down your goals is important. Written sentences ensure everyone is on the same page and give you something to reference when there’s a question about what it was exactly you were trying to do. When you write those goals, which tense do you use: Future or present? Here’s what I mean:
  • Students will walk quietly to lunch, without any disruption to the classes still in session.
  • Students walk quietly to lunch, without any disruption to the classes still in session.
The difference is minor.

The first example sets up the goal as something you hope will happen - a goal you’ll achieve in the future. The second example sets it up as something you already do. By writing it out and establishing it as a given, you have less room to put off the goal as something you’ll get to later. Present tense changes the perspective just enough to give you more intention in your goals.

Make Way for Small Wins

“What is the smallest change that will have the greatest impact?”

Around this office, we hear this mantra regularly from Dr. Rob Horner. Having bigger goals is important; they help us look toward the long-term and consider our systems as a whole. The trouble is: Where do you start? How about by starting small. 

A small win is just one step in a series of steps moving you closer to completing your long-term goal. It’s the type of thing that “fuels transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”1 Small wins build on each other; they gain us momentum and make big changes more tangible. What does a small win look like for your team?

If your goal to reduce disruption in the hallway, a small win would be to re-teach the expectations for how students walk through the halls. Let’s make sure we’ve told everyone what we expect to see (and what we don’t expect to hear) on their way to the cafeteria. The goal focuses on progress and continuous improvement rather than on completing one task and moving on to something different.

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Plan for the Tough Times

When you work on setting your goals, how much attention do you pay to the what-if scenarios? Five minutes? Ten? 

A Scottish study looked at 60 patients who had recently undergone knee or hip replacement surgeries.2  Everyone received a booklet with specific instructions for their recovery and 13 additional pages at the end – one for each week of rehab – to write their response to the prompt: 
My goals for this week are ______________.

Patients who had written plans in their booklets started walking almost twice as fast, and getting in and out of chairs unassisted almost three times as fast as patients who had written nothing. After reading through the recovery goals, psychologists found most journals had something in common: Patients figured there would be painful moments. They wrote their goals to include how to make it over those humps.

Taking time to think about what challenges could come up and brainstorming what you’ll do if they actually happen is a good habit to get into. Let’s think about that hallway example…

You know every grade level has trouble maintaining a noise level below elephant trumpet. Your data also show you 6th graders are probably going to give you a harder time than the rest. You’re already planning on re-teaching expectations school-wide, but knowing what you know about 6th graders, you need to plan for how you’re going to help them meet this goal in a more targeted way.

Start Somewhere

After all this planning and talking, you might get to a place where no one can agree on which goal to tackle first. There is something to be said for just jumping in and starting somewhere. I recently came across this TED Talk by Matt Cutts called “Try Something New for 30 Days”.

Matt’s strategy isn’t a silver bullet for long-term results…although it could be one way to get you a small win. A 30-day challenge will give you two things: A checkpoint for your goal and more information than you had when you started. Maybe it isn’t 30 days; maybe it’s two weeks, or two months. Whatever your length of time, make sure it’s long enough to give your strategies time to make an impact and short enough to keep you moving toward achieving that long-term outcome.

And so, if you find yourself coming off of winter break refreshed and ready to tackle the tough stuff, revisit those goals you set back in 2017. Be sure they’re written as a given, as something you already do. Ask yourself, what’s the smallest change you could make that would have the greatest impact? Then, do it. Give it a try. Whatever you do, I wish you good luck and Happy New Year!


1. Weick, Karl. “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” American Psychologist, January 1984.
2. Orbell, S., & Sheeran, P. (2000). Motivational and Volitional Processes in Action Initiation: A Field Study of the Role of Implementation Intentions1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(4), 780-797. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02823.