Students often ask teaching faculty to help them make important decisions that will affect their lives in significant ways. “Should I drop this course?" "Should I pursue teaching or industry?" "Should I do graduate studies?” These questions can only be answered in the context of a student’s life goals. Of course, most people are vaguely aware of what they want to do with their lives. But to obtain concrete answers to these big questions, it helps to have explicit life goals. In this article, I describe a short writing exercise that helps students clarify their life goals.
The exercise comes from Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1973, pp. 31–33), a classic of time management and goal setting. Throughout, I will describe how I do this exercise with individual students. I find that it is best to do the exercise one-on-one during office hours. To do it, you and a student will each need
- writing materials, such as paper and pencil;
- a watch or timer; and
- 15 to 20 minutes of undistracted time.
I recommend doing the exercise on paper instead of electronically because I find that I engage more fully and write slower on paper. The exercise is described below in a format suitable for reading aloud with a student. It consists of three questions, which we freewrite about for two minutes each with additional time for revision.
- At the top of a blank piece of paper, write, What are my lifetime goals? Write freely for two minutes without censoring yourself at all. You are not committing to these goals; you’re just writing them down. Dream big. Perhaps you want to visit the moon or run a major company. Dream small. Maybe you’d like to talk with your family or bake bread. Try to list as much as possible.
- Once you’ve completed your two minutes of freewriting, take another two minutes to revise and add to your life goals list. Perhaps there is a theme to your life goals that you only noticed once you were done with the first draft. Add that theme.
- At the top of another blank piece of paper, write, How would I like to spend the next three years? Again, freewrite for two minutes. This question will help frame and refine some of the topics that came up in the first question.
- Once you’ve completed your two minutes of freewriting, take another two minutes to revise and add to your short-term goals list.
- At the top of another blank piece of paper, write, If I knew now that I was going to suddenly die in six months, how would I live until then? An implicit premise of this question is that your family will not be majorly affected by your death, and you don’t need to make any preparations for it. You can imagine that you suddenly dematerialize while your family and friends continue on their merry way. The question seeks to determine how you would live if you had a dramatically reduced life span. Are there things you’d prioritize differently? Again, freewrite for two minutes.
- Once you’ve completed your two minutes of freewriting, take another two minutes to revise and add to your six-month goals list.
Take a final two minutes to look at and revise your answers to all three questions.
At this point, I encourage you to do the exercise yourself before reading on. The three questions have a surprising amount of interplay and can generate rather startling answers. By doing the exercise by yourself, you will be much better prepared to deploy it in a teaching context.
How I use the exercise
In my experience, students usually ask big, life-altering questions during informal times, such as at the end of lecture or while walking back from class. Instead of immediately launching in to a half-baked answer unsuited to their particular goals, I ask them an even bigger question: “What do you want to do with your life?” This bigger question is usually met with some vague, off-the-cuff response. I then talk about the importance of explicit life goals for answering their question. We then arrange a meeting to do the life goals exercise and answer their original question.
Prior to our meeting, I send them a write-up of the life goals exercise. The intent of sending them the exercise in advance is to familiarize them with the process. At the meeting, I ask them their original question, we discuss the importance of context, then we do the exercise together. This is important; completing the exercise while the student completes it builds a sense of collaboration. (And let’s be honest: What would be weirder than writing down your life goals silently while your professor fiddles with their email?)
Once the exercise is complete, I ask the student their initial question again. With the added context of the exercise, most students come up with a reasonable answer. I never explicitly ask the student to share their life goals with me. If the student doesn’t immediately see the connection from their question to their life goals, then I talk them through possible connections between their studies and their goals. At this point, it is important not to be too heavy handed or preachy. The point of the exercise is to provide context, not a preamble for a lecture.
The life goals exercise is simple and takes almost no time. Yet, it has provoked some of the most meaningful conversations that I’ve ever had with students. It is a great help in contextualizing student’s questions in a way that they themselves find meaningful and helpful. I encourage you to try it out next time a student asks you a big question.
Lakein, A. (1973). How to get control of your time and your life. Signet.
Parker Glynn-Adey, PhD, is an assistant professor, teaching stream, at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, where he teaches large, first-year math classes.