Setting and Working Towards Goals

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Aiming High

On my first day in Yeshiva as a Shana Alef student, I sat down with my Mussar Seder Chavrusa to learn together for the first time. We each introduced ourselves, mentioning a little bit about where we’re from. And then he asked me, at least if my memory serves me correctly: When are you finishing Shas?

I didn’t know what he meant. When was I, a Shana Alef kid fresh off the plane, finishing Shas? He just as well could’ve asked a Little League pitcher when he’s getting called up by the White Sox, or when the science fair winner is getting his call from NASA. I replied that I had no idea. He pressed further – but it’s on the agenda, right? I confessed that I hadn’t really thought about Shas, as I thought a single Masechta was more where I was holding. He brushed me away – I don’t care about the pace, he said; the point is for it to be something you’re working on. It’s one of our basic texts; how can you not be planning on working your way through it?

That conversation stayed with me for a long time.

It’s difficult to get anywhere significant without first deciding you wanted to go there. We don’t take vacations by throwing clothes in a suitcase, driving for a while, and checking into the first hotel we see, hoping for some fun day trips and memorable sights. You don’t get a job by taking whichever college classes happen to fit your schedule each semester and seeing where you end up. The first step of a meaningful journey is setting meaningful goals.

What goals make sense for your gap year? In another article, we suggested that while most of your time is spent learning, Torah is only one part of what you can gain from a gap year. Holistically, a gap year is about growing – as a mature, religiously inspired, Jewishly knowledgeable young adult. Your list of goal should reflect each of those elements.


A small part of the year is the fact that you’re on your own, solving your own problems. Are there experiences you want to have, like experiencing new communities or meeting new people? Are you comfortable solving your own problems, rather than falling back on your parents to manage things from afar? What relationships, with friends and mentors, do you want to walk out of the year with? Use the year as an opportunity to develop your sense of self-sufficiency and take responsibility for the things you do.

Religiously Inspired

You’re spending your entire day with God’s book. Don’t forget to talk to Him, to think about Him, and to wonder how He would answer the questions you’re pondering. Tefilla is a powerful way to take your pulse on religious inspiration. Are you excited for davening? Are there parts that come naturally, while others are difficult to concentrate for? Are you giving your audience with the Holy One on High the proper respect – fully dressed, showing up on time, avoiding distractions and shmoozing? Do you feel like Hashem is actually listening to you when you’re talking to Him? What about other Mitzvos – do you see them as opportunities, or disruptions to your daily schedule? Do you wish Shabbos could spill over into Sunday, or do you leave Shaleshudis to catch the earliest Maariv in the area?

Jewishly Knowledgeable

This is the easiest area to measure and set goals for. In another couple of articles, we discussed the wealth of areas there are to learn. Think about how much exposure you want to have had from each one by the end of the year. How much ground do you want to have covered? How well do you want to know what you’ve learned? Maybe you want to write up or present something you’ve learned – how often, and in what context?

How To Set Goals – The SMART Method

One method for setting effective goals is to follow the SMART acronym. SMART stands for:

  • S – Specific – What exactly do you want to accomplish? The goal should include as much information as possible as to what completing the goal entails. Bad goals: “learn how to learn”, “daven better,” “make some friends.” Good goals: “Learn Bava Metzia in a year,” “finish Tanach over 2 years,” “develop 4 close relationships,” “consistently walk out of davening having focused on at least one section.”
  • M – Measurable – What will be your metric to show you you’re making progress? In the davening example, the bad goal is incredibly amorphous – it seems to be based solely on feeling, without any way to track progress. The good goal includes a metric – concentration by section. That means if after two weeks, I’m focusing on two sections of Shmoneh Esrei, I know that I’ve made some progress and have 17 more sections to go. If two weeks later, I’m still at two sections, I know that I’ve stagnated and need to troubleshoot to find out what’s going wrong.
  • A – Achievable – Something that pushes you, but is possible to reach in a given time frame. Shas in a year? Not shayich. One Masechta in a year? Way too easy. A Seder or three – now we’re talking.
  • R – Relevant – Why do you care about this goal, at this point of your life? In other words, is this really the right time to commit to learning the Zohar cover to cover? Or memorizing every Tosfos in Bava Metzia? While every word of learning is important, that doesn’t negate the importance of triaging what you focus on first. A relevant goal will keep you motivated to continue progressing, towards the finish line.
  • T – Time-bound – what’s the time frame of this goal? A week, month, zman, year, a few years… It’s a good idea to have both short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals keep you moving towards a readily reachable finish line, while long-term goals give you the feeling of significant achievement over time. Finishing a Masechta is a nice accomplishment; it’s an even nicer one if it lets me tick off one more Masechta towards Shas.

Think about each area. Write down a few goals, discuss them with your Rebbeim. They’ve been around for long enough and seen enough gap year students to have a sense of what might be relevant, within reach, and meaningful. Once you have your list, post it on your Makom or next to your bed and get to work!

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