Setting goals for the future

Personal change doesn’t just happen. You need a goal. Prof. Michaéla Schippers explains why it’s important to verbalise goals, and how she has incorporated goal-setting into the bachelor curriculum at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) to help students achieve study success and realise their dreams.

Story by Dorine Schreiner


Goal-setting really could change the world, says Michaéla Schippers, endowed professor of behaviour and performance management at RSM. Prof. Schippers always thought she wasn’t idealistic but goal-setting has changed this. ‘I noticed how much advantage students have from this exercise. Whether it’s experiencing less stress, studying hard, working hard, or doing something nice like helping a neighbour; these things give people a sense of fulfilment.’

It’s generally accepted that people with a purpose in life have a better immune system, lower stress hormones and live longer. But people don’t often give their purpose explicit thought. Guiding students through a series of questions helps them formulate their goals so they’re not just ideas and plans that may never become reality, she explains. Once you have a broad idea of what you want, you rank and prioritise these goals, and allot time to the most important ones.


From dream to reality

Prof. Schippers helps bachelor students set goals through an evidence-based, computerised goal-setting programme. ‘Children might say they want to become a firefighter, but it’s just an idea. We ask students what they want to learn in the next two to five years, and what’s important to them in terms of family life, leisure time and in their career. But it all starts with dreams.’

When students get to part two in this goal-setting exercise they must define the plans, and come up with back-up plans. ‘You need a mental rehearsal of what you will do after a setback, and monitor progress towards your goal. If you want to become an Olympic champion, you’ve reached it when you win. But to get there you need sub-goals, so what are the steps in between?’ Prof. Schippers and her colleagues call this a goal achievement plan. ‘You need this to make your goals a reality.’


A structured approach

Life goals are less specific than assignments or deadlines. To attain the ideal future, you need to define six to eight main goals to describe your plan, says Prof. Schippers. Goal-setting in someone’s first year of university works in the longer term because the goal-setting exercise sets you on the right path which gets recursive. ‘Professionals should also revisit their goals now and then. There are so many options nowadays, and jobs change. If you put aside four to six hours to take part in this structured exercise, it can lead to a different path in your life. It’s worth doing this.’


On a mission

Being a “force for positive change” is only now an official part of RSM’s mission, but the precedent was set in 2009 with the launch of I WILL, and the mission has been bolstered since 2011 with goal-setting as part of the curriculum.

Both initiatives have proved that this is the way to go for the school because it benefits the community, business and students. Prof. Schippers says structured goal-setting has boosted academic achievements and increased retention rates. Also, the gap in performance between men and women, and for ethnic minorities versus nationals, became considerably smaller within the cohort, leading to an increase in study success among all groups.

More than 10,000 members of the RSM community and corporate friends have reinforced their goals for the future by making I WILL statements as a public declaration for positive change. Although you need the whole goal-setting trajectory, for I WILL you choose one important goal, says Prof. Schippers. ‘It’s a psychological mechanism: by publicly committing to a goal, you feel like you can’t skip it. So it’s easier to attain because you feel like you have to.’


New directions

One year after Prof. Schippers implemented goal-setting at RSM in 2011, a number of faculties at Erasmus University Rotterdam started a pilot in which students would only advance to the second year if they complete all study credits within the first.

‘To make sure you achieve your objectives you need a good plan and stick to it,’ she says. ‘If you set a clear goal, this is where your interest lies. If it fails, reflect and work on new goals. If your circumstances change, contemplate whether your old goals are still valid, or whether you should make new ones.’

If a goal is obstructed, this should have a positive effect on verbalising a new goal. ‘It’s okay to grieve, feel depressed and put it in place,’ Prof. Schippers explains. ‘Then ask yourself what your new direction is. You can then revisit your goal and try elsewhere. Make a new goal achievement plan for this. If one road doesn’t work, choose another road.’ 

Prof. Schippers says it would be great if everyone in the world had a goal. ‘Communities would look different. There’d be fewer people without goals or prospects.’ She concludes: ‘People don’t realise how much power they have to create their own world. You have more influence than you think.’  

Discover more about RSM’s I WILL initiative and access the more than 10,000 I WILL statements.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2017 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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