Lots of teens have big goals but don’t know where to start!

Does your teen seems to always get stuck not knowing where to start, no matter what small or big goal they are trying to achieve?  Making goals actionable could be one of the hardest things they’ll ever have to learn to do.

Living spontaneously and in the moment is a great thing. But it’s not great if you end up spinning your wheels because you don’t even know where to start.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Teens have SO much going on!  So much earlier than we had to.  College prep, varsity sports, volunteer work/community service, the list goes on and on.  They will need to build some pretty solid planning skills and habits to get through all of it.

So what’s the key? Goals have to be actionable. That is the only way to make sure they will know what steps to take, and don’t waste valuable time spinning their wheels.

Does your teen have the “planning gene”?

You know when you see them – paper planners, calendars on the phone, everything laid out.  While some people and teens are natural planners, most are not.  And they may find it challenging to figure out how to “become” a planner.

As the saying goes…

A Goal without a plan


Without a plan, teens will:

  • lose time trying to figure out each next step
  • feel like they don’t know where they’re going and lose sight of their goal
  • let procrastination take over

So how do you help your teen learn how to create an action plan when they need them?

Big goals vs. small goals?

Every big goal can be divided into small goals. While it is important to set and strive for bigger, longer term goals, we also need to be able to take steps towards smaller goals so that we can feel like we’re making progress, which encourages us to keep going.  “Why you should be setting smaller goals” by Rescue Time is a great summary of why everyone should be breaking down big goals into mini-goals to stay motivated.

Another great thing about smaller goals is that it is easier to work toward a goal that seems more easily achieved.  It is difficult to work towards a goal, week after week, if we don’t keep the end in mind.  For example, a teen working to save $50 to have spending money for entertainment will more easily be able to come up with a plan than if they were trying to save up $5,000 for a car.  Also, that big goal to save up $5,000 for a car can be turned into saving $500 every month for 10 months.

While your teen should break down a big goal into a series of mini-goals, they should be realistic about how many mini-goals to work on at the same time.  Spreading themselves too thin won’t help them reach their dreams.

The key to coming up with an action plan is to answer The Big Question: 

Where are you now and where do you want to be?

They don’t have to figure it all out at once. Just enough to get started then make changes.

Here are 3 Easy Steps to Break down Goals!

1. Define the big goal

Every goal should come from your teen’s vision or dreams. Even mini-goals should add up to one big, exciting, audacious, challenging goal.  So what is the ultimate goal?

Some examples of “the big goals” could be getting into the college program of their choice, getting selected to the varsity team, finishing a Genius Project, or saving money for a car.

2. Identify the gap

The next step is to figure out where they are now compared to where they want to be.  Do they have the knowledge and skills to get started?

Also, this starts with what type of goal they are trying to achieve. Goals, for the most part, can be set around completing a project or building a skill.

For a project, your gap is usually the end product:

  • Are they preparing for a Science Fair or Science Olympiad, and need to set up milestones against a specific timeline?
  • Do they have a Senior Project that they need to define?
  • Did they already define the milestones to hit to work diligently towards the end result?
  • Is there a materials list or do they need to create one?
  • Do they need to research books, articles, or videos to give them the knowledge to get started?

If preparing to try out for a team, or audition for a part in a musical, or even preparing for a big tournament in a sport, the goal will probably be around building skills to improve performance.  For a goal to improve on a skill:

  • Are they clear on what specific level of performance you’re shooting for?
  • Do they need resources like training videos for the skills they are trying to build?
  • Will they have to sign up for group lessons or coaching sessions?
  • Do they need help from someone else who has already done this and can help guide them?

3. Divide the goal into many mini-goals or milestones

Ok, so now that your teen has defined their big goal and their “gap,” it’s time to get to the nitty gritty.  To make goals actionable, it is critical to create a realistic list of tasks or actions to work towards the end goal.  The point is to end up with an action plan that will guide them day by day. That way no time is wasted spinning their wheels or wondering what comes next.

I have to admit, I hear from many parents that this may be the hardest thing for their teen to figure out.  Especially in some overachieving, perfectionist teens, this could be driven by analysis paralysis.  Trying to figure out a perfect plan before even getting started could totally backfire.  So how do you break this analysis paralysis?

a. Brainstorm

First, your teen will want to spend some time brainstorming the actions they will have to take.  Literally they should write down anything they can come up with. Anything. No judgement. They can get rid of some of their activities later if they don’t need them.  But when you say write “anything” down, it can be liberating and break the writer’s block.

Different people will want to take down their actions in different ways, but I find that using sticky notes can be a fun way to lay out the actions, especially if they’re colored notes.  🙂  After they write down the actions, they can use the sticky notes to organize them in order of when they’re needed, or group them based on the time they’ll need to work on each.

For the example of the big goal to get into the college program, a list of activities could include:

  • research the school’s specific requirements for admission
  • prepare the application
  • write the essay
  • select teachers to ask for recommendations
  • practice for the SAT or ACT

For a goal about improving their performance or a skill, such as auditioning and getting the lead in a musical, some of the activities on the list could look like this:

  • memorize the lines for the audition
  • practice tap dancing
  • learn the main song for the character
  • practice singing exercises

b. Prioritize and Organize

Second, prioritize the list of activities and put the tasks in order, or figure out what tasks need to happen the entire time they’re working on their goal.

Allocate Times

Finally, your teen should be able to estimate how long to work on each task.  For example, researching college admission requirements may take 30 minutes, but preparing the application could be 2-3 hours. If you’re preparing for an audition and you’re practicing singing exercises, are you doing that every day for 15 minutes? Every other day for 30 minutes?

It is necessary to think through the amount of time to dedicate to an activity or milestone for two very important reasons.

#1 – Teens don’t want to overdo a practice to the point of hurting themselves.

#2 – Teens need to practice estimating how long a task takes, and be able to self-reflect on how they did against that timeline.

Now what?

The planning gene

Ok so your teen went through the steps and figured out a way to break down their big audacious dreams into goals that are actionable.  Congratulations!  But, now what?  Now it’s time to figure out how to stick to your new plan.

Block the calendar!

Staying organized takes work. It just does.  Your teen will need to block out time on their calendar and set reminders to make sure they keep working their plan. They should map out their time outside school to match their activities and milestones.  They will also have to review their action plan and calendar every day to remind themselves what they have to work on outside of school hours.

Weekly reviews

Sunday night will be a good time for them to review their mini-goals. This way they’ll be clear on what are their specific objectives for that week, what activities or tasks they’ll have to complete, and whether there are any resources they need (like books, training videos, research articles) so they can have a clear direction of what will happen.


Teens, and adults too, should make time to think about the excitement of getting things done and being proud to be making progress!

They also need to take the time to evaluate how they’re doing, and whether they should consider adjustments to their action plan.  Is everything going along smoothly? Do they have to make up work that was missed? Did they miss something?


What if my teen is still stuck?

We get it.  Especially at this age, when their brain is developing and they feel overwhelmed, learning so many new things at the same time, it’s not easy to take a new approach.  I’ve found that some of the tactics that have made it easier for my own teens and other teens I’ve worked with are:

  • Buddy up with a friend to have a brainstorming session.  Bring out the sticky notes and markers, and let them go to town.
  • Work directly with their coach, if they have one, to get guidance in what the action plan should look like.
  • Find an older teen who has gone through what they want to accomplish, and get some ideas on how they made it work.

We hope that this information is useful to you and your teen! Check out our paper resources for planning goals and projects, but if your teen is more into apps, you can also try our Teen SMART Goals app on iOS.



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