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Goal Setting

Goal setting is a key component of happiness and here on HappierHuman, we take goal setting seriously. You need to be able to set and reach your goals if you want to succeed in achieving happiness.

We will discuss this like goal setting worksheets, how to set goals, types of goal setting, SMART goal setting and much more.


Performance or Mastery?

Performance or mastery? A simple change in perspective can be the difference between success and failure.

Do you think of your goal in terms of doing better than others, or in terms of learning?

The thought of doing better than others can be exciting and motivating. But the thought of doing worse can be unsettling. Distracting, even.

The thought of improving and learning can be also be exciting and motivating. So which is better? Improve compared to yourself or do better than others?

“I will get the best reviews out of anyone on my team,” or “I will learn to get my work done faster and better?”

The stakes are larger than a simple re-phrasing would suggest. In one study, those in one group procrastinated 50% less than those in the other.1

One group was guided through writing down a performance goal, the other through writing a mastery goal. Which is the one that did better?

Performance or Mastery?

Performance Mastery
“I will score the highest in my class” or “I will score higher than on the last test” ?
“I will look sexy by loosing 5 pounds” or “I will exercise three times a week” ?
“I will become the happiest person on the planet” or “I will become 10% happier” ?

In this particular study, it was the group with the mastery goal that procrastinated less. Other studies have found similar results. In general, performance goals tend get over-used. However, each goal type has its own advantages.

How can you know when to use which? Follow these guidelines:

1. If You’re Confident and Have a Competitive Spirit, Go For Performance

I’ve been reading a lot of pop psychology books on motivation recently. A disturbing trend I noticed is a growing tendency to bash competition – to suggest that it saps intrinsic motivation, hurts the development of pro-social behavior, and is generally less effective than other strategies,

People with performance goals tend to use defensive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including withdrawing effort, making excuses, and avoiding challenging tasks. People with learning goals tend to use constructive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including increasing effort, persisting on difficult tasks, seeking help, and remaining open to information about their mistakes.2

The key word, which I bolded, is tend. Sometimes performance goals reduce performance, but not always.

Some of my most positive transformations were driven by competition – by the energizing drive that comes from pushing yourself against the best efforts of others. Without competition, I would know less, have poorer skills, and probably not have made a few of the friendships I did.

It seems like an obvious finding in hindsight, but the truth is that competition can be as energizing as it is draining.

For those with a strong drive to achieve and the confidence to pit their skills against others, competition and performance goals are motivating. The thought of messing up and looking bad is hardly given any consideration – most effort is focused on how to do better.

However, for many, performance goals provoke anxiety and encourage avoidance behavior.

There are other considerations to keep in mind, but this one is the most important. Does thinking of going head-on against your peers or friends to lose weight or snag more sales excite you, or does it worry you? If it excites you, don’t waste this potential source of motivation.

If it worries you, a mastery orientation may be better suited towards helping you achieve your goal.

In two studies, those who were told to create a performance goal but disliked competition ended up performing more poorly than those who disliked competition but were told to create a mastery goal. They experienced more worry and anxiety, which translated into procrastination.3

Your preference makes all the difference.

 2. If You’ve Failed Before, Focus On Learning

There are two aspects to this. First, if you’ve failed before, you’ll probably pursue the goal with less enthusiasm. After all, you’ve already failed once.

I get amazed every time my mom talks about how she wants to lose weight. After every failure, she seems to find new sources of motivation. But her excitement isn’t as large as it once was. The failures are taking their toll.

Like a reset button, a change in perspective can help. Instead of focusing on trying to lose those 5 pounds again, something with which she may or may not succeed, she set a mastery goal –  something which, hopefully, will provoke more excitement and less anxiety. Specifically, she set a goal to build the physical endurance to be able to go running three times a week.

But there’s a second, more important reason that if you’ve failed before, a performance goal may not be the best idea. Repeated failure indicates a lack of preparation – that some critical skill or combination of skills are missing. Focus on building up those skills, and performance will take care of itself.

3. If You’re Anxious, Take Things One at a Time

I’m naturally competitive, but the thought of my first ballroom dancing competition struck me cold. I was going to look like a frikken fool.

Did that desire to avoid looking like a fool motivate me? Sure.

But once I stopped thinking about the competition and the dozens of people who would be laughing at me, and started focusing on mastering certain individual skills, the anxiety faded and an even stronger source of motivation arose. I wanted to be able to make those movement, gracefully. As I made progress, I felt pride in my growing ability.

Once I got better and gained a little confidence, I switched back, from mastery to performance, from focusing on simply improving to winning. In this case, on getting 3rd place or higher.

The thought of being on the dance floor no longer terrified me – in fact, it did the opposite, it energizing and motivated.

But I had to take things one step at a time.

Performance or Mastery?

So, which goal type do you think better suits your goal?

Performance – focusing on demonstrating competence, or mastery – focusing on improving your skill level?

Rewrite your subgoal in terms of the goal type you think is a better fit!

Inspiration Box

Goal Setting


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Previous Post: The Myth of Inspiration

Next Post: Approach or Avoidance?


1. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal
2. Performance and Learning Goals for Emotion Regulation
3. Achievement Motives and Emotional Processes in Children During Problem-Solving: Two Experimental Studies of Their Relation to Performance in Different Achievement Goal Conditions


The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough

You’re excited. You feel that this time will be different.

I want it bad enough. I can do this.

You start making plans. Maybe, you take the first step.

But then its gone. After a few hours or a few days, you’re back to normal. Feeling mundane, doing the mundane.


Two reasons.

Problem 1. Inspiration escapes as quickly as it enters.

Hunger is natural. When we ignore it, it gets stronger and stronger until all we can think about is food.

Inspiration is unnatural. With the passage of time, it leaks out of our body, as if it doesn’t belong.

No surprise – it doesn’t.

Hunger comes, whether we want it to or not. Inspiration doesn’t.

That’s why we read inspirational books and videos, again and again and again and again. But watching inspirational videos and reading uplifting stories takes time and has an inconsistent effect, sometimes getting us excited, other times leaving us bored.

That’s why personal coaches and motivational speakers are so fond of positive visualization. Of imagining your desires having already come true. That’s inspiring.

Unfortunately, inspiration isn’t enough.

Problem 2. Inspiration unconverted to motivation feels good but doesn’t lead to action.

How often have you felt excited and then done nothing to show for it?

There isn’t some sort of excitement threshold, past which you actually start getting your goals done. Excitement is like salt water – by itself, completely useless. It takes a purifier to change it into something useful.

Goal setting isn’t primarily effective because it’s inspiring, but because it converts transient desire into long-term focus and commitment. It’s a purifier.

But often, it’s not enough.

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Difficult, Not Easy

The harder the goal, the smaller the motivation. Right?

Unless the reward also got better, the effort wouldn’t be worth it anymore.

That’s why I use to choose easy over difficult. When trying to accomplish difficult long-term goals, I would break them up into easy sub-goals.

Easy means reason for optimism and less effort. That should increase motivation.

But it doesn’t. Reality works the other way around.

Up to a point, difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones.

As I looked through the goal-setting research literature, I discovered something surprising.

Up to a point, difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones, even if the reward stays the same.

In other words, if you want to feel more motivated, select a harder goal.

Your Brain, Uncle Scrooge

Scientists call it the discontinuous expectancy model, but the math can be summed up into one sentence,

We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success.3

We’re less likely to pursue difficult goals. Why do so few people aspire to become millionaires? Often because they lack the confidence. In my case, because I’m not at all sure that the crazy amount of effort involved would be worth it.

But once a challenging goal is selected, that same difficulty which was a source of resistance becomes a source of energy. Those with a goal of becoming a millionaire access more motivation than those with a goal of staying debt-free. In part because the vision of being rich is more inspiring, but also because becoming a millionaire requires more motivation.

Having made up its mind, the brain provides as much motivation as it thinks is necessary, but no more.

discontinuous model of expectations (small)

Motivation is low for easy goals because the brain is frugal – there’s no point getting excited and wasting energy on something simple and easy, like eating breakfast, taking a shower, or sending an e-mail. As goal difficulty increases, motivation rises in step – for example, getting a training certification requires more energy than taking a shower, which the brain provides by increasing motivation.

However, after a certain level of difficulty motivation immediately drops to near zero, as the brain feels that the task is too challenging – that even with a high level of motivation, their resources or abilities are not enough.

The peak of that line is the sweet spot.

Aim High & Shoot Middle

In order to accommodate the fact that our brains are short-sighted, in the last post you took your long-term goal and converted it into a short-term sub-goal.

The next step is making that short-term sub-goal challenging enough to be exciting. Simply by making the sub-goal harder, you’ll have more motivation, even if the reward stays the same.

But difficult goals are less likely to be achieved. That’s why most people suggest aiming low and shooting high. Okay.

If your intention is to feel satisfied with yourself, aim low and shoot high. Seriously – setting challenging goals will reduce your satisfaction.

But if your intention is to actually get something done, aim high and shoot middle.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ,11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18

Even when I fail to achieve the difficult sub-goals I set for myself, I’m happier for the experience – having something challenging to work towards is exciting. I learned, I made a little progress, next time I’ll do better.

Challenging But Doable

You started with a long-term goal for which you’ve continuously made little or no progress, and now you’ll create from it an exciting short-term sub-goal.

Do that, and you’ll have targets which have to be hit NOW, not the ever later later. And now, hopefully, you’ve got something exciting to work towards over the following few days or weeks.

Without going overboard, what can you transform your sub-goal into so that it is challenging and exciting but doable?

Inspiration Box


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Previous Post: Now, Not Later

Next Post: The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough


1. The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
2. The Effect of Beliefs on Maximum Weight-Lifting Performance, 1979.
3. Another Look at The Relationship of Expectancy and Goal Difficulty to Task Performance, 1980.
4. Increasing Productivity With Decreasing Time Limits: A Field Replication of Parkinson’s Law, 1975.
5. Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance, 1978.
6. A Study of The Effects of Task Goal and Schedule Choice on Work Performance, 1979.
7. Knowledge of Score and Goal Level as Determinants of Work Rate, 1969.
8. Studies of The Relationship Between Satisfaction, Goal Setting, and Performance, 1970.
9. The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975.
10. A Two-Factor Model of The Effect of Goal-Descriptive Directions on Learning From Text, 1975.
11. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance 1976.
12. Role of Performance Goals in Prose Learning, 1976).
13. The Motivational Strategies Used by Supervisors: Relationships to Effectiveness Indicators, 1976.
14. Effects Achievement Standards, Tangible Rewards, and Self-Dispensed Achievement Evaluations on Children’s Task Mastery, 1977.
15. Systems Analysis of Dyadic Interaction: Prediction From Individual Parameters, 1978 .
16. The Interaction of Ability and Motivation in Performance: An Exploration of The Meaning of Moderators, 1978.
17. Effects of Goal Level on Performance: A Trade-off of Quantity and Quality, 1978.
18. Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979.

Now, Not Later

Everyone I’ve met has at least one realistic dream they’d like to see come true.

They’d like to have a good body. Or be nicer. Or learn a hobby.

But when I ask them what they’re doing to make it come true, almost always, stripping away the wishy-washy, what I hear is “nothing”.

Not surprising. Our brains were wired to be short-sighted.

Procrastination isn’t a mark of the lazy. It’s the default, a mark of normality.

Animated Hyperbolic Discounting

Although college kids are the most likely to wait until the last minute, the problem is universal. According to online goal setting community 43things, stop procrastinating is the third most popular goal (no surprise, lose weight is #1).

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The World’s Best (Free) Guide to Goal Setting

Dream big dreams; only big dreams have the power to move men’s souls.

-Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome

It’s a paradox. It’s the big goals that excite us and get us to stop hitting the snooze button. They make us feel alive. They make the boring interesting, and the frustrating exciting.

But it’s the big goals that are the least likely to end up accomplished.

After a short burst of energy, the excitement and interest fizzles. And then, maybe, you get excited once again. And then, just like last time, after a short burst of energy, the excitement fizzles and takes you back to where you started, with little or no progress to show for it.

For much of my life, I’ve set only realistic goals. Goals that could be easily accomplished. After all, what’s the point of dreaming big if the obvious result is failure?

But I’ve gotten greedy. I’d rather get work done AND feel inspired.

I don’t want to have just enough motivation to get by. I want as much as possible. More motivation equals more energy and more life.

Are you greedy too?

Do you want more accomplishment, more energy, more happiness, more life?

Then welcome to the world’s best free guide to goal setting.

Inspiration Rollercoaster
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