When it comes to achieving our New Years resolutions the statistics are pretty dismal. Research from the University of Scranton as published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that only 8% of people are successful in achieving their New Year resolutions. Similar research conducted by Psychology Professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire found that only 12% of people actually achieved their New Year resolutions. Given such low levels of success you may be tempted to conclude that goal setting doesn’t work!
This research shows just how limited our success has been with current goal setting approaches. We all instinctively know that goal setting is a powerful means for achieving success. There must be a better way. What can we do to increase the likelihood that we achieve the goals we set for ourselves? To answer this question we will explore what research says about effective goal setting.
You see there is a science to effective goal setting.
A Brief History of Goal Setting Theory
Goal setting as a means for bringing about change and improved performance is not a new idea. Nearly 2300 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about four causes of change and one of the causes he identified was what he called the final causes – an exploration into why things came about. Aristotle identified the final cause as one of the as change happening as the result of a defined purpose or end goal. The idea being that purpose or an end result is a catalyst for change.
Thousands of years ago people observed the power of goals to encourage and direct action towards an end result. It wasn’t until 1935 that the first empirical studies of goal setting was conducted by the British philosopher, Cecil Alec Mace. Cecil Alec Mace discredited the widely held idea that workers are primarily incentivized by money and found that people are also motivated by the accomplishment of goals. A ground breaking study at the time.
The 5 Scientific Principles of Effective Goal Setting
The father of modern goal setting theory is Dr. Edwin Locke, who expanded upon the work of Cecil Alec Mace and described his findings on goal setting in the 1968 paper, “Towards a theory of task motivation and incentives”. This research paper laid the foundation for modern goal setting theory.
Dr. Edwin Locke worked closely with Dr. Gary Latham for many years researching the theory of goal setting. It is their joint research that identified the following five principles of effective goal setting.
- Task complexity
Their research showed that the achievement of our goals is directly related to the extent that these five principles are present. Let us explore each of these five goal setting principles in more detail.
1. Set Clear and Specific Goals
”The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated.” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting
Unclear goals are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective goal setting. Effective goals are clear and specific.
Clarity is about knowing exactly what you are trying to achieve and by when. When goals are specific we mean that they are measurable, that is we are able to measure the goal’s outcomes. When goals that are vague, such as lose some weight, they are not motivating or easy to achieve. An example of a clear goal is “to lose 10 kilograms in the next six months“. A clear goal is measurable and time-bound. Measurable goals remove ambiguity and help you focus.
“A goal properly set is halfway reached.” – Zig Ziglar
Clear goals focus your attention. Without them you become distracted, your attention is dispersed and scattered. When goals are vague and unclear they create misunderstanding and confusion. The lack of clarity makes it difficult to identify your next steps and what needs to get done. The result is you lose focus, waste time and energy. When goals are clear tasks and activities are easy to identify.
Clear and specific goals result in higher performance. This is because measurable goals are more effective at guiding action and behaviour.
“A good archer is known not by his arrows but by his aim.” – Thomas Fuller
Setting clear and specific goals then, are an important first consideration for effective goal setting. Next time you are setting goals take time to write your goals down and for each goal include a measurable and time-bound description.
2. Set Challenging Goals
Whilst it is a good start to have clear goals, it is just as important to set challenging goals. Research by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham found that people are motivated by challenging goals. In fact, the more difficult and specific a goal is, the harder people will work to achieve it. When goals are too easy or too difficult people will not put forward their best effort.
“Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to the highest performance.” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting
Research shows that difficult and challenging goals inspire increased performance, as effort is directly related to the difficultly of the goal. The more difficult the goal, the more effort you will put in. The result is difficult and challenging goals lead to higher performance.
Challenging and specific goals create a gap between current and expected performance and therefore motivate greater effort and persistence. Not only do challenging goals motivate people to work harder. People believe that difficult goals are more rewarding, they believe that the more challenging a goal the bigger the satisfaction and reward.
The highest level of effort occurred when the task was moderately difficult, and the lowest levels occurred when the task was either very easy or very hard.” – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey
Setting challenging goals requires a careful balance to ensure the right degree of challenge. Goals that are either too easy or too difficult negatively affect motivation and decrease performance. The highest levels of motivation is achieved when goals are somewhere between easy and difficult.
When you next set goals ensure they are challenging yet realistic, difficult yet attainable. When setting goals ask yourself. Are they challenging enough? Are they big enough to be motivating? Are they realistic and attainable?
3. Build Rational and Emotional Commitment
The goal–performance relationship is strongest when people are committed to their goals. – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey
Research shows that people perform better when they are committed to achieving their goals. It is your emotional commitment to your goals that provides the motivation and perseverance demanded by challenging goals. Failing to take time to build rational and emotional commitment to your goals makes achieving them unlikely.
“Commitment is most important and relevant when goals are difficult.” – – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey
To achieve challenging goals you have to believe in what you are doing and why you are doing it. You must believe that what you are doing is important and that the outcomes matter. Commitment makes it more likely that you will persevere in the face of difficulties, obstacles and setbacks. Commitment builds the resilience necessary to achieve challenging goals.
“High commitment to goals is attained when (a) the individual is convinced that the goal is important; and (b) the individual is convinced that the goal is attainable (or that, at least, progress can be made toward it).” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting
When your goals are specific, difficult and challenging you need to take time to build rational and emotional commitment. The more difficult the goal the more commitment is required. Therefore when setting difficult and challenging goals devote time to building commitment to your goal. You can do this by making your goals visual, using pictures or by creating a vision board. Visualisation is another powerful tool for building commitment.
Also ensure you have devoted sufficient resources in support of your goals. The availability of resources to support your goal is an essential component required to build commitment.
4. Schedule Regular Reviews to Stay on Track
Once you have set your goals it’s important to track and monitor your progress. Tracking the progress you are making in achieving your goals builds motivation and commitment.
“Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal.” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting
You don’t just set goals and review them at the scheduled completion date. You must track your progress, get feedback and make adjustments along the way. This ensures your remain on track and motivated.
Tracking your progress ensures your goals remain effective and that you sustain commitment. When working towards achieving your goals make time for feedback and review. Schedule a dedicated time to review your goals, such as a weekly or monthly review. Use this time to identify challenges and make adjustments to stay on track.
5. Manage Task Complexity by Chunking
Setting specific, challenging and difficult goals can result in increased task complexity. Complex tasks which need to be completed to achieve your goals can be overwhelming. If they are not carefully managed, complex tasks can cause you to lose motivation and erode commitment. Eventually becoming huge obstacles that stand in the way of your goals. Given this you will need to take special care to manage complex tasks.
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
You can manage task complexity by breaking complex tasks down into smaller chunks of sub-tasks. Then craft a roadmap of smaller sub-tasks that need to be completed on your way to achieving your big goal. This means you will need to develop a plan to guide you on your journey. Plans help prevent you from getting overwhelmed by task complexity. Plans also help you to remain motivated, take action and monitor your progress.
Locke and Latham recommended that learning goals should be used, rather than performance goals when dealing with complex tasks. Complex tasks require learning and in these situations it is often better to set learning goals rather than performance goals.
“When people strive for goals on complex tasks, they are least effective in discovering suitable task strategies if: (a) they have no prior experience or training on the task; (b) there is high pressure to perform well; and (c) there is high time pressure (to perform well immediately).” – Edwin Locke, “Motivation through conscious goal setting”
In addition to developing a plan you will also need to manage complex tasks by identify where you have knowledge and skills gaps. Once you have identified your gaps consider setting a number of learning goals. Also make sure that you give yourself sufficient time to improve your knowledge and skills. Recognise that achieving challenging goals is a learning process, complete with all the frustrations associated with learning a new skill.
Goal setting is just like any other skill and so it takes practice to become good at setting and achieving goals. By applying these five research based principles you will considerably increase the chances of achieving your goals.
“Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I’ll give you a stock clerk.” – J.C. Penney
The next time you are setting goals, make sure you include all five of the ingredients necessary for effective goal setting:
- Make sure your goals are clear, specific and measurable.
- Make sure you aim high and set goals that challenge you.
- Make sure that you are rationally and emotionally committed to achieving your goals.
- Monitor your progress by developing a weekly and quarterly review process to help you stay on track.
- Consider the complexity of the tasks demanded by your goals and chunk them into smaller tasks when appropriate. Also be sure to make time for learning, development and growth.
Following these five principles will dramatically increase your chances of achieving your goals.