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Student Blog

The 'goal' standard: tracking, connecting and thriving


Written by
Brian B.

Across all areas of our lives, working towards goals can be challenging. MSc Project Management student Brian shares what he has learnt using the principles of formal frameworks to maximise his chances of success. 

Man on a laptop on a sofa

We’ve all experienced it - grand ambitions to master a new subject, develop a new career path, run a personal best – only to find our goal foundering, unfulfilled and even if achieved, often anticlimactic. The study of how to most effectively design and achieve goals has grown massively, and as a student on the University of London MSc Project Management programme, with academic direction from Royal Holloway, University of London, I've increasingly encountered formal methods including 'SMART' (1) and 'Objectives and Key Results' (OKR)(2). Recently, their value in achieving diverse goals - both academic and otherwise – has been increasingly apparent, and behind the acronyms, I found principles that support an enriching focus on intelligent planning, critical thinking and connection.

People climbing up a mountain on different paths doing different things to reach the top

Reversing to progress

In a world of procrastination, the best instinct can be to just get going. However, the value of first mapping in reverse from your goal to your starting point is plotting your journey well. The right milestones and measurements avoid a road to nowhere later on, starting with how you formulate your goal. While one might seek to ‘improve skills in programming’, another would aim to ‘develop three 20-hour projects using Python within one month’.

The latter creates a detailed target to work back from in blocks, where people only start the next activity once they have finished the previous one. This creates a 'critical path' to your goal, allowing prioritisation and a focus on learning from your previous experiences.

Naturally, timelines are usually your main measurement of progress, but visual representations of the journey, for example in a Gantt chart, can also inspire other measures. The only requirements are that they are as clear and numerical as possible. They should also be relevant to your own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of your journey towards the goal. In short, in the words of the originator of the OKR framework John Doerr, they ‘measure what matters’.

Getting back on track 

Once you are moving forward and measuring progress, milestones will inevitably be missed. In these moments, time and the space to evaluate the nature of the issue, such as challenging your blind spots and biases, are critical. 'Root Cause Analysis' (3) is a systematic approach, originating in the field of engineering, that first collects as much data as possible on the missed milestone, and then brainstorms potential causes.

Again, the more visual you can be here, the better. The act of tracing links between causes and effects is a great way to think broadly and creatively, there is also opportunity to open up input from friends and colleagues. I like the clarity of 'Fishbone Diagrams' (4), placing a statement of the problem to be overcome as the 'fish's head' , facing to the left. Categories of causes extend to the right, as 'ribs' branching off the 'backbone', continuing to branch to more and more significant underlying causes. So, when do you stop? It is recommended to stop when causes are identified that, if tackled, would lead to a specific, measurable improvement back to the 'critical path' towards your goal.


Additionally, a tricky challenge can be to assess the ongoing relevance and achievability of the goals, expected milestones and timelines themselves. Perspective, flexibility, an open mindset and humility are required to accept whether to adjust or remove the concept if necessary.

The day after

Whether the final outcome is positive or negative, goals are associated with change and the end of a process. Resilience is usually defined through its association with failure, the challenge to establish a 'growth mindset' to turn negative outcomes into an opportunity to learn, and the ability to overcome related obstacles in the future.

However, resilience is also important when high success becomes difficult to maintain. New opportunities can result in newfound stress and an increase in burnout risk. Anxiety related to transitions, impostor syndrome and a lack of balanced wellbeing is often related to the absence of enough confidence to say 'no'.

Building resilience requires several factors including forming social connections through friends, family, colleagues and community which is being recognised as increasingly important.

As renowned authors on the subject of resilience, Rob Cross, Karen Dillon and Danna Greenberg have highlighted: “It is through the conversations that validate your plans, reframe your perspective on a situation, help you laugh and feel authentic with others, or just encourage you to get back up and try again because the battle is a worthy one — that we become resilient.” (5)

In summary, it seems that goals are less about the event of reaching the 'finish line' and more about the journey. I've found that with the inevitability of setbacks, structured approaches can increase the quality of the route taken, drawing inspiration from detailed, visualisable targets, allowing us to achieve our best. Whether the outcome is positive or negative, the human factor expressed in our personal connections remains a foundation for motivation, and the wellbeing to keep going. 



Brian studies MSc Project Management in Switzerland.