We recently released a special report that discussed the lack of preparedness many students face as they enter the collegiate experience.  It’s been getting some nice attention at sites like US News & World Report, Education Week, and Pearson Education.  A news affiliate of NPR also ran a story on the subject.

Surely, the topic of college readiness is a very pertinent one in today’s discourse, as enrollment rates are continuing to increase, yet drop outs are also on the rise.  This relates to a matter that we all face, whether we are enrolling in college or not – and that is goal setting.

A recent study that will appear in the Journal of Organizational Behavior makes a claim that sheds some light on why many of us fail to accomplish the things we set out to do.  This can relate to a student who has to drop out of college his or her first year because they cannot handle the pressures of the college atmosphere.  Or it can relate to the common businessperson as he or she attempts to develop and accomplish goals for the future.  The researchers argue that “people in contemporary economies seem to know that they should ‘think long term,’ when in fact they base their choices and behaviors primarily…on short-term considerations.”

The meaning of this statement is simple enough to grasp – we are hypocritical when it comes to our goal setting.  We all realize that long term planning is necessary, but we don’t take the necessary steps to get there.  Instead, we perform as though we are accomplishing many small tasks for the near term future.  While many correctly make the claim that goals are best handled when we develop “action steps” to accomplish them, we nevertheless lose our way in many cases toward the ultimate end.  So maybe this is not so much hypocritical, but rather we just don’t have a good knowledge on how to effectively set goals.

Students don’t succeed, in short, because they are not preparing for the long haul of college education – they don’t know how to.  They take it “day by day,” and despite what many will tell you, this is certainly not an effective way to plan for the future.  In the business world, it is important to create efficient and sustainable action plans that work toward a single end.

Of course, these researchers have some good tips on how to stay motivated toward those long term goals – 8 of them to be precise.  They were developed from in-depth interviews of professionals across a wide array of fields, which the researchers then condensed into a common pattern of eight key sources that benefit the psychological underpinnings of how we go about pursing our goals:

1. Allegory – it benefits us to compare our own goals to great accomplishments of  the past, like landing on the moon or being the first to fly across the Atlantic.  This provides some grandeur and takes the “ordinary” out of it.

2. Futurity – think of the future benefits accomplishing the goal will have.  How will it impact your own grandchildren one day?

3. Self – Set the goal in such a way that invokes your own personal identity and reputation.  How will it affect you personally?

4. Singularity – Maybe this goal is unique.  Even if it is not, it helps to frame it that way so that you can have some novelty to associate with it.  Perhaps no one in the world has set out to do this.  It may not be true, but it sure does make it more exciting and helps to build that motivation.

5. Knowledge – What kind of new knowledge will be created from accomplishing this goal?  Be of the mindset that any knowledge that’s created is good.

6. The Work – Embrace the challenges of the goal.  Kind of like the mantra, “No pain, no gain,” keep the end in mind and know that the hard work put into the goal will pay dividends in the end.

7. Embeddedness – Prove your skeptics wrong.  Use any negativity that you have encountered, such as naysayers, to further motivate you.  This will help gain social legitimacy for the goal in your own eyes.  All the hard work is “not for nothing.”

8. Progress – Consistently measure the progress you have made toward your goal.  Thinking in a way that emphasizes forward movement in the direction of the long term goal can help.  This is where a series of short-term goals to help accomplish the final end can be beneficial, so long as they are relevant to the long-term goal.

As you may notice, these various motivators tend to start off “big-picture” and narrow to more specific measurements of success.  Keep this in mind as you begin your journey to long-term goal pursuits.