I believe that students often focus on their long term goals and become frustrated when they don't achieve them as quickly as they would like. Of course, hard work and motivation are key, but I work with my students to set realistic and strategic short term goals that can be more quickly realized. Particularly, in the areas of TOEFL and IELTS where students experience intense pressure to achieve their desired scores as quickly as possible. This can be applied to all areas of study.
I agree. Students do well to challenge themselves with their research and their writing. Also, the process of setting goals enables students to plan for success and focus their efforts in a strategic way.
I think the best way to see noticeable improvement in your writing, research, and analytical skills, is to simply push yourself as often as you can. When writing an academic essay, try to create a more specific and nuanced thesis, rather than the typical "if... than..." statement. We need to push ourselves to read material that is both difficult to read, but difficult to analyze. It is also important we ask trusted professionals, tutors, and the like how we can improve. The best students are open to criticism, and welcome advice.