Quantcast
Uncategorized Archives - Happier Human

Archive

Category Archives for "Uncategorized"

Uncategorized

Random thoughts and musings

4

Not Making Progress? Raise The Stakes

If you were sufficiently motivated, you could become a multi-millionaire. So could I.

So why aren’t either of us rich? The small, intermediate steps involved in getting there are so far removed from the grand prize, that they need to stand up on their own merit to be motivating.

The visit to the gym needs to stand on its own – its connection to a future where I am super healthy and super sexy is too weak.

Last week, you were introduced to mental contrasting, a technique which helps motivation flow backwards, from the ultimate reward to the mundane crap along the way. Unfortunately, it’s only partially effective.

What to do?

Raise the stakes.

Think of one sub-goal that you’ve been putting off for a while. It could be going to the gym, writing a blog post, going to the dentist – anything.

Now imagine that you’ve made a bet with an all-knowing, all-powerful, impartial observer – someone who is omniscient, omnipotent, and incorruptible. If you don’t complete that sub-goal you’ve been putting off within the next week, this impartial observer will burn your entire life savings – all the money you have in the bank, your house, your car – anything, anywhere of value will burn.

What do you think? Would that motivate you?

It would motivate me.

Of course, setting up a situation like that is a bad idea. Talk about stress. And what if something unexpected happened and you failed?

But that’s the basic idea. Raise the stakes. 

I’ve found two effective methods for doing so – social accountability, and commitment contracts.

Social Accountability

I’d been putting off creating my first for-profit product for months. Then I made a public declaration that I’d have a sale-ready version within a week.

What I’d been putting off for almost a year I got done in five days. Social accountability worked.

I’ve never seen a supportive accountability partnership reduce motivation. Usually I see the opposite – rapid progress replacing what use to be slow stagnation.

We are social creatures. The reason culture is so powerful – the reason it can transform a baby of almost any ethnic origin, any color, any gender, almost any intelligence and almost any personality into a functional citizen and success is because of just how much we care about what other people think about us.

If we didn’t, we’d go off and follow our primal desires – we’d become hobos, sex addicts, and druggies. But we don’t, because we’ve internalized the values of our culture.

You care what other people think about you. So pretending otherwise would be ignoring a potentially large source of motivation. Tell someone that you want to do something – and do it, you’ll receive their approval. Don’t do it, and you’ll look bad. It’s a double whammy of motivation – we want to appear consistent with our word.

So get an accountability partner. Ask a friend or family member you trust to check in with you a few times a month. It’s best to have someone who needs accountability themselves – that way you can help each other, rather than having a nagging partner who’ll just grate on your nerves.

When you meet, discuss progress. If there’s been no progress, discuss roadblocks and potential countermeasures. Ask for suggestions. Discuss your intentions for the upcoming days or weeks ahead of time – that way you’re forming a concrete goal which you have to complete in order to appear consistent.

I’ve been able to perform herculean acts of effort due to accountability. I’ve seen the same happen for other people. If you care what other people think, you’ll be able to do so as well.

A life coach once told me that the most valuable service she provides is accountability. You can spend hundreds of dollars getting accountability from a coach, or get it for free from a friend or family member. It may take you some time to find a partnership that works. But it’ll be worth it!

Seriously! Don’t just read this and think, “oh that’s a good idea.”

Do it! Get accountable! If that’s still not enough, raise the stakes one more time.

Commitment Contracts

Right now, the part of you that is logical is in control. Naturally, you assume that in the future, that part of you will also be in control. But that’s not how the brain works – the part of you that wants to eat healthy gets shut out the moment your brain sniffs desert; the part of you that wants to work on your business gets shut out the moment you get home from work tired and mentally depleted.

That’s where commitment contracts come in.

Despite having no intrinsic value, money is one of the most motivating forces in the world. So if you want to raise the stakes, put your money on the line.

Tell a friend or family member what your goal is, and then tell them what you’re putting on the line. This is just like having an accountability partner, except this time there’s money on the line. You’ll want an impartial observer – someone who’ll ask you for proof of completion and won’t buy any of your excuses.

I use StickK.com. Give it your credit card information, and it’ll take your money if your referee says you didn’t complete your goal. Even better, if you want, if you fail to complete your goal StickK will donate your money to an anti-charity, an organization whose cause you actively reject and oppose. I use that option.

Talk about stakes! Not only will failure cause me to lose money, a cause I identify as evil will be getting it instead!

The higher the stakes the better – the more you’ll care, and paradoxically, the less likely you’ll lose money. I routinely create contracts worth hundreds of dollars.

You can bet they motivate me!

If you’re not willing to put money on the line, maybe this goal isn’t as important to you as you thought it was.

Can you think of someone who’d be willing to help keep you accountable? If so, reach out to them. Do you think it’ll be enough? If not, create a commitment contract.

Inspiration Box

 

Return to top.

 

That’s it for this series on goal setting! All the posts, in order:

1. The World’s Best (free) Guide to Goal Setting
2. Now, Not Later
3. Difficult, Not Easy
4. The Myth of Inspiration
5. Performance or Mastery?
6. Approach or Avoidance?
7. Raise The Stakes

I hope it helped!

8

Approach or Avoidance?

Usually, working hard in order to avoid looking like a fool is more motivating than working hard in order to do well.

That’s why, no surprise, many goals are formulated as a means to avoid.

I want to… lose weight to avoid being made fun of. I want to… make more money to avoid being in debt. I want to… stop procrastinating to avoid missing deadlines.

Avoidance goals work – the prospect of loss is more motivating than the prospect of gain. But they’re also stressful and sometimes less effective than goals formulated as a means to approach.

Approach or Avoidance ?
“I will try to get a good grade” or “I will try to avoid getting a bad grade” ?
“I will try to look good” or “I will try to avoid looking fat” ?
“I will try to get a good performance review” or “I will try to avoid getting negative feedback” ?

Each goal type is a simple reflection of the other.

One focuses on the positive, the other on the negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional focus on the negative.

For most of high-school, it was avoidance that drove me to work hard – I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. So I studied, a lot. Much more than I would have if I had tried focusing on the positive.

So, which should you use – approach or avoidance? Here are two guidelines to help you decide.

Approach Goals Are Pleasurable; Avoidance Goals Are Stressful

With three hours left to go before the deadline, you can bet I’m motivated.

But motivated isn’t the same thing as excited. Someone being bullied can be highly motivated to learn how to fight. But I’m willing to bet that they also feel miserable. They’re anxious to learn as much as possible. Anxiety is motivating, but it’s also unpleasant.

“I want to lose weight in order to look sexy.” If you have an approach goal and think about it, it will leave you excited and feeling good.

“I want to lose weight in order to stop looking fat and ugly.” If you have an avoidance goal and think about it, it will leave you anxious and feeling bad.

Sometimes anxiety is worth the cost. After all, I feel happy after completing my goals, whether they were motivated by excitement or anxiety. But most people are over-stressed. Adding even more stress may not be worth it.

Avoidance Goals Are A Double-Edged Sword

Anxiety isn’t just motivating – it’s also risky. Sometimes, avoidance goals are too emotionally charged – producing so much negative emotion that rather than shocking you into action, they shock you comatose.

Psychologists almost universally recommend approach over avoidance goals. That’s the reason.

In one series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal were significantly more likely to procrastinate than those encouraged to write an approach goal.1 In another series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal performed worse – getting lower grades, completing fewer tasks, and running shorter distances.5

However, keep in mind that those in the avoidance group did worse, but only as an average. Most did worse, but some did better. If you’re able to handle stress and don’t flinch away from anxiety, avoidance goals will work for you.

The workplace is full of avoidance goals, “I will avoid upsetting my boss, I will avoid getting noticed, I will avoid being later, I will avoid missing the deadline.”

These types of goals are stressful. For many people, those goals could become more effective and less stressful by being rewritten as approach goals, “I will please my boss, I will stand out and shine, I will be on-time, I will finish ahead of the deadline.”

Avoidance Goals Help Smokers Quit

In one long-term study of smokers wanting to quit cold-turkey, those in the avoidance group were able to keep away longer than those in the approach group.3 One study does not make science, but it’s suggestive that in some areas of life, fear of death and disease can be useful.

On the other hand, not all of those in the avoidance group did better. For some, the fear was so overwhelming that it created anxiety. Guess how they relieved that anxiety? By smoking.

Approach or Avoidance?

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

Approach – focusing on the positive, or avoidance – focusing on the negative?

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

Inspiration Box

Goal Setting
Fitness
Wealth
Happiness

 

Return to top.

 

Previous Post: Performance or Mastery?

Next Post: Not Making Progress? Raise The Stakes

References

1. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal
2. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation
3. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation
1

Positive Psychology Resources

What is Positive Psychology?

Wikipedia positive psychology page.

[ted id=312]  
What (and Why) is Positive Psychology, an overview paper by psychologists Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt.

Positive Psychology Books

1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – The book which introduced me to positive psychology.

)

Book summary.

2. Stumbling on Happiness – What are cognitive biases and what is their relevance to happiness and well-being?

[ted id=97]

Wikipedia book summary.

3. The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does – Debunks a number of happiness myths.

Video introduction.

A summary of hedonic adaptation.

4. Flourish – Written by field founder Martin Seligman, introduces recent research as well as the new PERMA model of well-being.

)

New York Times piece introducing PERMA.

Related Books

The Time Paradox – The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life – The subtitle is a bit of an exaggeration, but the book provides an entertaining and informative overview of a different approach to happiness.

The First 20 Minutes – An overview of recent exercise science. Why is this on the list? Because exercise is one of the most effective methods of increasing well-being.

Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind – Best book on self-compassion, another effective method of increasing well-being.

Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier – The best book on gratitude, perhaps the most effective method of increasing well-being.

The Happiness Project – An inspiring story of someone actually implementing positive psychology advice.

Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength – What good is advice if you don’t implement it?

Search Inside Yourself – Not the most accurate or scientific introduction to meditation, but certainly the most inspiring.

A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – I recommend this book for its section on negative visualization, perhaps the most powerful gratitude exercise. Also describes an alternative approach to happiness.

Blogs

The Psychology of Well-Being
Positive Psychology News Daily
Motivational Memo
The Happiness Project
The Positivity Blog
Marc and Angel Hack Life
Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life
Bounce

Reference Books

The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology

Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology

Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward

Research

Cognitive Biases – Thinking Fast and Slow, the best book on the subject. LessWrong, a deeper look at rationality.
Gratitude – Research studies here, research studies and overviews here.
Grit – Research studies here, research summary here.
Sel-Compassion – Research here, research summary here.
Self-Regulation – Research here and here.
Social Anxiety & Character Strengths – Research here, VIA Institute on Character here.
Time Perspective –
Losada Ratio – Research and summary here.

Contact me if you need help getting research papers.

4

Goal Setting Theory

Goal setting is a proven tool for generating motivation. Having been studied extensively for the past 50 years, much is known on how to maximize the tool’s usefulness.

Properly set goals have been shown to increase performance on well over 100 different tasks involving more than 40,000 participants in at least eight countries working in laboratory, simulation, and field settings. The variables have included quantity, quality, time spent, costs, job behavior measures, and more. The time spans have ranged from 1 minute to 25 years. The effects have been found using experimental, quasi-experimental, and correlational designs. Effects have been obtained whether the goals are assigned, self-set, or set participatively. In short, goal-setting theory is among the most valid and practical theories of motivation in psychology.1

Let’s talk money. After goals were assigned to 39 truck drivers, their productivity immediately increased. Over the following 4 months they earned their company an extra $2.7 million dollars.1

specific difficult goals are the best

After going through a 1-day goal setting workshop, tree loggers immediately started increasing their performance. The additional wood cut over the following 3 months was estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars.2

Similarly significant results have been found with typists, salesmen, dieting, maintenance technicians, chess, students, and many others.3,4,5,6,7,8

Goal Setting Theory Chronological Overview v2

Why Do Goals Help?

“Goals affect performance through four mechanisms.

First, goals direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant activities…

Second, goals have an energizing function. High goals lead to greater effort than low goals. This has been shown with tasks that
(a) directly entail physical effort,
(b) entail repeated performance of simple cognitive tasks, such as addition;
(c) include measurements of subjective effort; and
(d) include physiological indicators of effort.

Third, goals affect persistence. When participants are allowed to control the time they spend on a task, hard goals prolong effort.

Fourth, goals affect action indirectly by leading to the arousal, discovery, and/or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies.22

Goal Selection

In comparing goal selection with goal motivation, although the same variables are involved, they often act in different ways.

For example, a person might shy away from a goal involving frequent feedback – the anxiety of being watched or reviewed might be aversive. However, once selected, frequent feedback is an essential component of successful goal pursuit.

Desire – Economists Are Wrong, Humans Aren’t ‘Rational’

According to economists, goals are selected in order to maximize expected value – people eat 1,000 calorie desserts because the pleasure they provide outweighs the risk of heart-disease. Perhaps it does, but in most circumstances, humans are irrational. That is, they act sub-optimally. For example, humans get more pleasure out of socializing than from watching TV.59 Then why does the average American spend 4 hours a day in front of the tube? Irrationality – the shiny screen appeals more strongly to our desire.

Goal setting is based more on the crude forecasting of our subconscious, as expressed through desire, than on maximizing expected value.60

Temporal Motivation Theory

According to Piers Steel, the world’s leading procrastination researcher, goal importance is subconsciously calculated using the following formula:

Temporal Motivation Theory

  • Expectancy: The percent likelihood of success, as judged by your subconscious.
  • Value: The desirability of the expected reward, as decided by your subconscious.
  • Impulsivity: The strength of one’s tendency to act on a whim.
  • Delay: The expected time until the reward will be acquired.

Expectancy Theory: Expectancy x Value

“Expectancy theories suggest that a process akin to rational gambling determines choices among courses of action. For each option, two considerations are made: (1) what is the probability that this outcome will be achieved, and (2) how much is the expected outcome valued?”11,12

Expectancy Theory

This theory is well-supported.14,15 However, two caveats are necessary. First, the accuracy of the model brakes down over large periods of time, useful only in predicting short-term decision making.13,15 However, this is why the second component of temporal motivation theory includes present value discounting. Second, value is determined more by the subconscious, than by what a person ‘logically’ decides is important.

More on expectancy theory on wikipedia.

Prospect Theory

Even if two goals present the same outcome, if the goal is phrased as a loss it will be perceived as more important.16

For example, consider a person who needs to purchase a gift on a $100 budget. They can choose between:

  1. Saving $50 by spending 3 hours shopping.
  2. Earning an extra $50 by working for 1 hour.

Financially, the goals are the same – what would have been a loss of $100 becomes $50. However, even when all the other variables are the same (e.g. the person likes working as much as shopping) the first choice is more likely to be selected than the second.

Prospect Theory
This is because we feel loss more powerfully than gain. In other words, we are more likely to select a loss avoidance goal than a gain approach one.

For example, 93% of PhD students registered early when a penalty fee for late registration was emphasized, with only 67% doing so when this was presented as a discount for earlier registration.17

More on prospect theory on wikipedia.

Present Value Calculation: Delay x Impulsivity

The primary reason that college students procrastinate is because of delay. The paper or report is unimportant until the last moment, once the deadline is just a few hours away. Worse, getting those good grades is helpful, but only for getting a job, something years into the future. Most people would rather receive $100 now than $110 after a year. Now is better.

This is because humans evolved to develop a present-focus time perspective. In an ancestral environment, someone spending the first 21 years of their life on education would have died. There were more pressing concerns – hunting for food, building shelter, staying safe, and so on. According to Philip Zimbardo, who studies the psychology of time, humans are born into the world with a present-focus time perspective. Although kids might intellectually understand the importance of studying for the future, their primitive brain disagrees, resulting in temper-tantrums about being forced to do something so boring, like homework.

As they age, children become less impulsive (in part because their prefrontal cortex matures, and in part because of cultural pressure). On a subconscious and emotional level, they start to understand the importance of working not just for the present, but for the future. For those who are less impulsive, delay is less important – $110 after a year is just as good as $100 today. For those who are more impulsive, pleasure now is priority number one.

Hyperbolic Discounting

As you can see in the picture above, as the deadline becomes closer the goal of writing the essay becomes more and more important.12 In addition, because Ann is less impulsive, she starts working on the paper earlier than the other students.

For more information on time-orientation, read the book The Time Paradox.

Feedback

To some degree, all people have evaluation anxiety.18 This is obvious when one considers that although feedback has such a transformative impact, most people do not seek it out. For example, websites which offer the opportunity to anonymously collect personal feedback (e.g. you talk too loud, have poor fashion sense, make unfunny jokes, etc…) are extremely useful, but are used by very few people. Because that feedback chips away at self-esteem, it is avoided.

Likewise in the workplace. Although the annual review leads to greater performance, few people enjoy the process. Fewer still actively seek out feedback during the intermittent 12 months between each review. Examples can be found in all other domains. People are less likely to select goals which produce anxiety. The prospect of evaluation is one of the, if not the largest source of potential anxiety.

Fantasy Visualization

According to fantasy visualization theory, there are three routes through which goals are subconsciously set.

Expectancy Based

“The expectancy based route rests on mentally contrasting positive fantasies about the future with negative aspects of impeding reality. This mental contrast ties free fantasies about the future to the here and now. Consequently, the desired future appears as something that must be achieved and the impeding reality as something that must be changed. The resulting necessity to act raises the question: can reality be altered to match fantasy? The answer is given by the subjective expectation of successfully attaining fantasy in reality. Accordingly, mental contrasting of positive fantasies about the future with negative aspects of the impeding reality causes expectations of success to become activated and used. If expectations of success are high, a person will commit herself to fantasy attainment; if expectations of success are low, a person will refrain.”19

Fantasy Based

“The second route to goal setting stems from merely indulging in positive fantasies about the desired future, thereby disregarding impeding reality. This indulgence seduces one to consummate and consume the desired future envisioned in the mind’s eye. Accordingly, no necessity to act is experienced and relevant expectations of success are not activated and used. Commitment to act towards fantasy fulfillment reflects solely the pull of the desired
events imagined in one’s fantasies. It is moderate and independent of a person’s perceived chances of success (i.e. expectations). As a consequence, the level of goal commitment is either too high (when expectations are low) or too low (when expectations are high).”19

Negative Rumination

“The third route is based on merely dwelling on the negative aspects of impeding reality, thereby disregarding positive fantasies about the future. Again, no necessity to act is experienced, this time because nothing points to a direction in which to act. Expectations of success are not activated and used. Commitment to act merely reflects the push of the negative aspects of impeding reality. Similar to indulgence in positive fantasies about the future, dwelling on the negative reality leads to a moderate, expectancy independent level of commitment, which is either too high (when expectations are low) or too low (when expectations are high).”19

Core Concepts of Effective Goal Setting

essential elements of goal setting theory and the high performance cycle

There are four components of goal setting which must always be in place for the process to be effective:

  1. Goal Excitement & Acceptance – The goal must contain a reward valuable enough to make the effort worth it. 
  2. Goal Difficulty – Hard, challenging goals are inspiring, while easy goals are not.
  3. Goal Specificity – Within reason, the more specific the better.
  4. Goal Feedback – The better and more frequent the feedback, the faster the progress. Without feedback, progress is impossible.

In addition, there are the avoidance-approach and mastery-performance dichotomies to select from.

Goal Excitement & Acceptance

Exciting, accepted goals are motivating goals:

  1. Hard goals are more exciting than easy goals.
  2. A reward that sounds good now might feel pointless upon reflection.
  3. The most powerful reward is worthless if forgotten.

1. Hard Goals Are More Exciting Than Easy Goals

People are often encouraged to have realistic expectations. If the purpose is to inspire motivation, that advice is false.

Difficult goals inspire greater performance than easy goals. This is true for two reasons. One, “we are motivation misers,” which is discussed in the next section.20 Two, difficult goals lead to larger rewards. What’s more exciting? The prospect of earning a million dollars, or the prospect of earning ten?

As described by expectancy theory in the last section, people are less likely to select difficult goals. However, once chosen difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones.

2. A Reward That Sounds Good Now Might Feel Pointless Upon Reflection

As humans were evolved to be short-sighted, the human mind is poor at long-term planning. Known as the optimism bias, humans have a strong tendency to underestimate the difficult of accomplishing their goals. The human mind has a hard time changing the abstract notion of long-term, hard work into a concrete estimate of time and energy required.

After having that optimism shattered by the strain of reality, a reward than once seemed exciting may no longer appear worthwhile. On a crude level, excitement and desire is a function of expected reward minus expected cost. Becoming a doctor and earning $150,000 a year? Not worth seven years of 80-hour weeks. Getting into shape? Worth exercising twice a week.

Because we tend to underestimate effort, we overestimate excitement. In other words, we feel excited for goals that we shouldn’t. As the optimism bias is hard-coded into our brain, it’s difficult to overcome, although mental contrasting can help.

The simple solution is to select only those goals which are extra-exciting, which offer a reward that is strongly desired. I personally have abandoned many goals because of this problem. Although the reward was exciting enough to get me started, once I realized just how hard I was going to have to work, the reward was no longer enough.

3. The Most Powerful Reward is Worthless if Forgotten

The human brain is poorly equipped to handle many modern sources of motivation. The more we put off acquiring food, the hungrier we get and the more motivated to eat we become. Likewise with social connectivity. The longer we go without contact, the stronger the motivation to connect becomes.

Now consider a modern source of motivation, like power and wealth. After an inspiration speech, we feel excitement. But as time passes without our having taken any action, unlike with hunger and social connectivity, instead of motivation increasing, it rapidly falls to zero. The problem is this – the human brain is used to getting reminders. Lack of wealth can be as motivating as lack of food, but the body doesn’t produce lack of wealth reminders.

Hunger, loneliness, thirst, cold – all reminders which get produced automatically. Don’t act, and the reminder gets louder and the motivation stronger. But with wealth, well-being, health, and many other modern goals, reminders don’t get produced automatically – that’s what motivational speeches and inspirational writing are for.

This is why the most powerful reward is worthless if forgotten, and why [fantasy visualization] is so frequently recommended. Not only should an exciting goal be selected, but the reason(s) why it’s exciting needs to be frequently reviewed – we need to create our own reminders.

Goal Difficulty

Hard, challenging goals are motivating, while easy goals aren’t.36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53

When selecting a goal, difficulty is aversive – we stay away from uncertainty. After having actually selected a goal, difficulty is energizing.35

Negative Expectancy Model

negative model of expectations (small)

In order for a more difficult goal to be accomplished, more energy must be expended, as skills need to be improved and hard work needs to be put in. Energy is functionally equivalent to motivation – more energy equals more motivation.

On the other hand, if success is all but guaranteed, it would be a waste to allocate more than the minimum (e.g. there’s no point getting excited and motivated about the goal of eating breakfast – that’s a waste of mental energy. If someone wants to eat breakfast, it will probably happen, excitement and motivation or not).

We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success.20

However, this picture is incomplete.

Discontinuous Expectancy Model

discontinuous model of expectations (small)

Motivation is low for easy goals because the brain is frugal – there is 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 people feel that the task is too challenging – that even with a high level of motivation, their resources or abilities are not enough.

Goal Specificity

“Twenty four field experiments all found that individuals given specific, challenging goals either outperformed those trying to “do their best”, or surpassed their own previous performance when they were not trying for specific goals.”21

Simply, specific goals are more effective than vague ones.2,3,9,10,22,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34

In one study, engineers and scientists were told to do their best. In another, unionized telecommunications employees were told to do their best. For both groups, those who were instead told to hit a specific target did better, receiving higher ratings and also reporting higher job satisfaction.9,10

When people are asked to do their best, they do not do so. This is because do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically. This allows for a wide range of acceptable performance levels, which is not the case when a goal level is specified.22

There are four major reasons why specific goals are so much more effective than vague ones:

    1. It is easier to get feedback for specific goals, and feedback is one of the most important requirements for progress. For example, one could have the goal of getting more fit. Without having defined what ‘fit’ means, progress is difficult to gauge. On the other hand, if the goal is structured as being able to run 2 miles and having biceps with a diameter of 14″ within the next 3 months, one can immediately know how they’re doing, what’s working, what isn’t, and if they need to make any changes.
    2. Specificity leads to planning. At the high level of ‘getting fit’, it’s difficult to effectively strategize, “I want to get fit… so I’ll go running!”. To create an effective strategy requires a clear idea of the objective. If the goal is to be able to run 2 miles within 3 months, an effective strategy can be created, “I will follow this 3-month training plan, running half a mile tomorrow, 3/4ths a mile next week….”
    3. Specificity is exciting. The more specific the goal, the more vivid your thoughts when imagining the goal. The more vivid your thoughts, the more real & exciting. Which goal do you think is more likely to generate excitement? “I will get fit and look sexy” or “I will lose 10 pounds, tone my abs, fit into pants two sizes lower and look sexy”?
    4. The more specific your goal, the more you’ll be practicing it mentally. Habits are powerful – whether bad (nail-biting) or good (brushing teeth) – they make action automatic and often effortless. Mental practice contributes to habit formation. If you have a specific goal, when you think about that goal, you might also be doing mental practicing, in turn helping to form a habit and making the goal easier to accomplish.

Goal Feedback

“Integrating the two sets of studies points to one unequivocal conclusion: neither [feedback] alone nor goals alone is sufficient to affect performance. Both are necessary. Together they appear sufficient to improve task performance.”22

“For goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires. If the goal is to cut down 30 trees in a day, people have no way to tell if they are on target unless they know how many trees have been cut. When people find they are below target, they normally increase their effort or try a new strategy.”21

In one study, the effect of goal feedback on improving health-safety compliance was measured. Before goals were set and feedback was provided, compliance was around an abysmal 60%. Afterwards, compliance hit 100%.26

importance of feedback 2

Approach vs. Avoidance

Goals can be either approach or avoidance. They can also be both, although that is rare and is discussed at the end of this section.

Approach Avoidance
I will lose weight so that I can look good. I will lose weight so that I can stop looking ugly.
I will score the highest in my class. I will avoid scoring low.
I will learn how to get my work done faster and better. In order to avoid getting yelled at by the boss, I will stop working slowly.

 

Approach goals are usually pleasurable to think about, while avoidance goals are stressful.23

Stress can be an exceptionally powerful motivator, but is sometimes used in place of what would have been an equally effective excitement. For example:

“I will study to avoid getting yelled at” vs. “I will study in order to feel good about my capabilities.”

Both might have produced a similar outcome – getting good grades, but undeniably the second perspective would be more enjoyable. However, avoidance goals are usually more emotionally powerful than approach goals – the thought of getting yelled at is a more emotionally charged experience than the thought of doing well. Recall prospect theory.

The reason avoidance goals are not universally more effective is because they’re sometimes too emotionally charged – thinking about the goal produces so much stress and anxiety, that in an attempt to feel better and get distracted, people procrastinate. Even when effective, the cost can sometimes be high . For example, jobs which are high in avoidance motivation have higher turnover.23

For these reasons, psychologists believe that approach goals are more effective than avoidance goals. However, there are several important nuances.

First, in some domains, avoidance goals appear to more effective than approach goals. For example, in a study of smokers attempting to quit, those instructed to write down an avoidance goal had more success than those instructed to write down an approach goal.24

“As with traditional conceptualizations of avoidance goals, some avoidance goals involve preventing a negative state from occurring (e.g., I do not want to get cancer). However, other avoidance goals involve curing a negative state that already exists (e.g., I want to get rid of a chronic cough)…

Researchers have argued that trying to stay away from a state elicits anxiety, which in turn undermines how much effort people will put forth to work on the goal. Moreover, even if progress is made on a prevent goal, the difficulty of detecting the continued absence of something may make the progress hard to recognize.

For example, people trying to prevent developing cancer may find it difficult to detect a reduction in the risk of developing cancer and thus have a hard time determining whether they have made any progress on their goal. In contrast to prevent goals, it may be easier to detect progress when working to meet a cure-avoidance goal.”

quit smoking avoidance cure goals

Similar results were found in another study – for health goals, cure-avoidance goals are more likely to motivate proactive health behavior (e.g. going to the doctor’s).24 In my own life, avoidance-cure motivation has been more effective in fighting my fibromyalgia than approach motivation.

Second, avoidance goals can sometimes be combined with approach goals, so that the total motivation increases while stress decreases.22

For example, I have made a pledge that if I don’t finish this article by the end of the day, I will have to donate $150 to charity. That’s stressful – I want to avoid losing money. At the same time, it’s exciting – I want to work hard in order to share my knowledge. For the goal of writing this article, I have two sources of motivation – one approach and one avoidance.

Performance vs. Mastery

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

Learning Performance
I will score higher than last time. I will score the highest in the class.
I will exercise three times a week. I will become the most fit member of my family.
I will learn how to get my work done faster and better. I will get the best performance review out of everyone on my team.

 

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 the question is, which is more motivating – improving and learning, or competing and doing better than others?

Psychologists tend to lean towards learning goals, as in most of the studies they’ve conducted, those with a learning goal have done better than those with a performance goal.

“People with performance goals seek to prove their ability. When people with performance goals encounter stressful situations, they seek to avoid proof of low ability, which they associate with low self-worth. In contrast, people with learning goals (also known as mastery goals) seek to develop and improve their ability. When people with learning goals encounter stressful situations, they seek to learn and grow from the experience…

The two types of goals are associated with different strategies for dealing with negative feedback. 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.”

However, once performance goals are split into performance-approach and performance-avoidance (e.g. I will do the best vs. I will avoid doing the worst), in certain circumstances and for certain people, performance-approach goals are more effective than mastery goals.22 Personally, I find the prospect of competition exciting and motivating. Many of the skills I’ve learnt and knowledge I’ve gained has been in order to do well in competition.

More research is necessary to tease out the specific circumstances and personality traits for which performance goals are more effective than learning goals.

Goal Setting Risks

Read Goals Gone Wild for a review of the risks of goal setting.

Disheartenment

“When the goal is very difficult, paying people only if they reach the goal (i.e., a task-and-bonus system) can hurt performance. Once people see that they are not getting the reward, their personal goal and their self-efficacy drop and, consequently, so does their performance. This drop does not occur if the goal is moderately difficult or if people are given a difficult goal and are paid for performance (e.g., piece rate) rather than goal attainment.”22

Goodheart’s Law / Tunnel Vision

When a measure becomes a target, it stops being a good measure.56

“Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.55

In order to hit their requirement and keep their job, consider two different ways a teacher could raise the test scores of their children. One, they could spend an extra three hours every day working – some extra time for lesson planning, some time for staying after school and offering free tutoring, and so on. Two, they can try to anticipate what the test questions will be and have their students memorize their answers. Because two is significantly easier, the teacher will probably select that option.

If the test was a perfect measure of student progress, that would be okay. But because it isn’t, now that test scores have become a goal target, they’ve stopped being an accurate measure of student progress, as teachers and students “game” the system. The size of the degradation varies from measure to measure.

The real-world consequence is that a goal might cause someone to become less, rather than more productive. Consider a goal to get a better review, in a situation where the busiest people in the office tend to get the highest reviews. While people aren’t gaming the system, that correlation makes sense – those who work harder tend to perform better. But with a goal of getting a better review, although one option is to do more work, the easier option is to spend a little extra effort to always look busy.

Self-set goals rarely have this problem, Goodheart’s Law is more a concern for managers.

Unethical Behavior

“We explored the role of goal setting in motivating unethical behavior in a laboratory experiment. We found that people with unmet goals were more likely to engage in unethical behavior than people attempting to do their best. This relationship held for goals both with and without economic incentives. We also found that the relationship between goal setting and unethical behavior was particularly strong when people fell just short of reaching their goals.57

Risky Behavior

In one study, participants who were given difficult performance goals selected riskier strategies, as they needed to improve performance in order to meet their targets.58

Combined with survivorship bias, this problem is a large contributor to company failure.

References

1. The Importance of Union Acceptance for Productivity Improvement Through Goal Setting, 1982.
2. Improving Job Performance Through Training in Goal Setting, 1975
3. Effects of Assigned and Participative Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976.
4. Effects of Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976.
5. The Role of Proximal Intentions in Self-Regulation of Refractory Behavior, 1977.
6. Different Goal Setting Treatments and Their Effects on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1997.
7. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance, 1976.
8. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal, 2009.
9. Joint Effect of Feedback and Goal Setting on Performance: A Field Study of Residential Energy Conservation, 1978.
10. The Effects of Goal Setting and Self-Instruction Training on The Performance of Unionized Employees, 2000.
11. Expectancy Theory Predictions of Salesmen’s Performance, 1974.
12. Integrating Theories of Motivation, 2006.
13. Motivation Theory, Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1990.
14. Self-Efficacy and Resource Allocation Support For a Nonmonotonic, Discontinuous Model, 2008.
15. Vroom’s Expectancy Models and Work-Related Criteria: A Meta-Analysis
16. The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice, 1981.
17. The Power of Reframing Incentives: Field Experiment on (Students’) Productivity, 2008.
18. Evaluation Anxiety. Handbook of Competence and Motivation, 2005.
19. Goal Selection and Goal Striving. Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology, 2001.
20. The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, 2010.
21. Goal Setting and Task Performance, 1980
22. Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation, 2002.
23. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation, 2006.
24. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation, 2005.
25. A 2 x 2 Achievement Goal Framework, 2001.
26. Improving Safety Performance With Goal Setting and Feedback, 1990.
27. Changes in Performance in a Management by Objectives Program, 1974.
28. Assigned Versus Participative Goal Setting With Educated and Uneducated Woods Workers, 1975.
29. Effects of Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976 (sales personnel).
30. Effect of Performance Feedback and Goal Setting on Productivity and Satisfaction in an Organizational Setting, 1976.
31. The Role of Proximal Intentions in Self-Regulation of Refractory Behavior, 1977.
32. Performance Standards and Implicit Goal Setting: Field Testing Locke’s Assumption, 1977.
33. Blue Collar to Top Executive, 1977 (ship loading).
34. Different Goal Setting Treatments and Their Effects on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1977 (maintenance technicians).
35. Personal Correspondence With Piers Steel.
36. Increasing Productivity With Decreasing Time Limits: A Field Replication of Parkinson’s Law, 1975.
37. Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance, 1978.
38. A Study of The Effects of Task Goal and Schedule Choice on Work Performance, 1979.
39. Knowledge of Score and Goal Level as Determinants of Work Rate, 1969.
40. Studies of The Relationship Between Satisfaction, Goal Setting, and Performance, 1970.
41. The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975.
42. A Two-Factor Model of The Effect of Goal-Descriptive Directions on Learning From Text, 1975.
43. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance 1976.
44. Role of Performance Goals in Prose Learning, 1976).
45. The Motivational Strategies Used by Supervisors: Relationships to Effectiveness Indicators, 1976.
46. Effects Achievement Standards, Tangible Rewards, and Self-Dispensed Achievement Evaluations on Children’s Task Mastery, 1977.
47. Systems Analysis of Dyadic Interaction: Prediction From Individual Parameters, 1978 .
48. The Interaction of Ability and Motivation in Performance: An Exploration of The Meaning of Moderators, 1978.
49. Effects of Goal Level on Performance: A Trade-off of Quantity and Quality, 1978.
50. Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979.
51. The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
52. The Effect of Beliefs on Maximum Weight-Lifting Performance, 1979.
53. Another Look at The Relationship of Expectancy and Goal Difficulty to Task Performance, 1980.
54. Performance and Learning Goals for Emotion Regulation, 2011.
55. Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, 1976.
56. Problems of Monetary Management: The U.K. Experience, 1975.
57. Goal Setting as a Motivator of Unethical Behavior, 2004.
58. The Relationship of Team Goals, Incentives and Efficacy to Strategic Risk, Tactical Implementation and Performance, 2001
59. A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method, 2004
60. Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.

4

Goal Setting Research

The below is a small sampling of the research on goal setting, in chronological order.

1974

Improving Job Performance Through Training in Goal Setting

20 tree logging operators were randomly assigned to either a 1-day training program in goal setting or a control group. The additional wood cut over the following 3 months by those in the goal setting group was estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Absenteeism fell and production increased.

Abstract here.

1975

A Review of Research on The Application of Goal Setting in Organizations

“Twenty-seven studies on goal setting were reviewed to evaluate the practical feasibility of goal setting in organizations and to evaluate Locke’s theories of goal setting. The organizational research reviewed provides strong support for Locke’s proposition that specific goals increase performance and that difficult goals, if accepted, result in better performance than do easy goals.” –Abstract

1978

Joint Effect of Feedback and Goal Setting on Performance: A Field Study of Residential Energy Conservation

In this study, the effect of goal difficulty and frequent feedback for encouraging energy conservation was assessed.

80 families were placed into one of four groups:

Difficult Goal Easy Goal
Frequent Feedback Frequent Feedback + Difficult Goal Frequent Feedback + Easy Goal
No Feedback No Feedback + Difficult Goal No Feedback + Easy Goal

Those in the difficult goal group were asked to cut their energy consumption by 20%, while those in the easy group were asked to cut their consumption by 2%. Those in the frequent feedback group were told three times a week how much their consumption had declined.

The only group whose consumption fell a significant amount was the frequent feedback + difficult goal group. For the duration of the study, their consumption fell an average of 14%.

Abstract here.

Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance

Over a ten week period, weekly productivity goals were either assigned by the manager or set jointly with the employee.

As all 41 subjects were typists, performance was easy to measure (e.g. it’s easy to measure the number of pages typed, frequency of errors, and so on). The primary purpose of the study was to show that goals which are jointly set will generate more motivation than those which are ‘forced’. This hypothesis was proven wrong. Later studies would show that goal acceptance requires understanding the reasons why a goal was set, not being a part of the goal setting process.

Other findings from this study:

  • Those who had difficult goals performed higher.
  • Those with a high need for achievement and an internal locus of control set more difficult goals.
  • Goal setting was more effective for those employees with high self-esteem, and for those who felt working harder would be rewarded.

Abstract here.

1980

Goal Setting and Task Performance

“Results from a review of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting on performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development. Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging, Ss have sufficient ability (and ability differences are controlled), feedback is provided to show progress in relation to the goal, rewards such as money are given for goal attainment, the experimenter or manager is supportive, and assigned goals are accepted by the individual. No reliable individual differences have emerged in goal-setting studies, probably because the goals were typically assigned rather than self-set. Need for achievement and self-esteem may be the most promising individual difference variables.” –Abstract

Goal Difficulty vs. Performance

“A previous review of the goal setting literature found strong evidence for a linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance (assuming sufficient ability), and more recent studies have supported the earlier findings. Four results in three experimental field studies found harder goals led to better performance than easy goals:”

  • Increasing Productivity With Decreasing Time Limits: A Field Replication of Parkinson’s Law, 1975 (tree logging).
  • Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance, 1978 (typists).
  • A Study of The Effects of Task Goal and Schedule Choice on Work Performance, 1979.

“Twenty five experimental laboratory studies have obtained similar results with a wide variety of tasks:”

  • Knowledge of Score and Goal Level as Determinants of Work Rate, 1969 (addition).
  • Studies of The Relationship Between Satisfaction, Goal Setting, and Performance, 1970 (reaction time and addition).
  • The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975 (coding task).
  • A Two-Factor Model of The Effect of Goal-Descriptive Directions on Learning From Text, 1975 (prose learning).
  • Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance 1976 (chess).
  • Role of Performance Goals in Prose Learning, 1976 (prose learning).
  • The Motivational Strategies Used by Supervisors: Relationships to Effectiveness Indicators, 1976 (card sorting).
  • Effects Achievement Standards, Tangible Rewards, and Self-Dispensed Achievement Evaluations on Children’s Task Mastery, 1977 (color discrimination).
  • Systems Analysis of Dyadic Interaction: Prediction From Individual Parameters, 1978 (figure selection task).
  • The Interaction of Ability and Motivation in Performance: An Exploration of The Meaning of Moderators, 1978 (perceptual speed).
  • Effects of Goal Level on Performance: A Trade-off of Quantity and Quality, 1978 (brainstorming, figure selection and sum estimation tasks).
  • Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979 (brainstorming).
  • The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
  • The Effect of Beliefs on Maximum Weight-Lifting Performance, 1979.
  • Another Look at The Relationship of Expectancy and Goal Difficulty to Task Performance, 1980 (perceptual speed).

Goal Specificity vs. Performance

“Previous research found that specific, challenging (difficult) goals led to higher output than vague goals such as “do your best”. Subsequent research has strongly supported these results… Twenty four field experiments all found that individuals given specific, challenging goals either outperformed those trying to “do their best”, or surpassed their own previous performance when they were not trying for specific goals:”

  • Improving Job Performance Through Training in Goal Setting, 1974 (tree logging).
  • Changes in Performance in a Management by Objectives Program, 1974 (marketing and production workers).
  • Assigned Versus Participative Goal Setting With Educated and Uneducated Woods Workers, 1975 (tree logging).
  • The “Practical Significance” of Locke’s Theory of Goal Setting, 1975 (truck loading).
  • Effects of Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976 (sales personnel).
  • Effects of Assigned and Participative Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976 (typists).
  • Effect of Performance Feedback and Goal Setting on Productivity and Satisfaction in an Organizational Setting, 1976 (customer service).
  • The Role of Proximal Intentions in Self-Regulation of Refractory Behavior, 1977 (dieting).
  • Performance Standards and Implicit Goal Setting: Field Testing Locke’s Assumption, 1977 (key punching).
  • Blue Collar to Top Executive, 1977 (ship loading).
  • Different Goal Setting Treatments and Their Effects on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1977 (maintenance technicians).
  • Importance of Participative Goal Setting and Anticipated Rewards on Goal Difficulty and Job Performance, 1978 (engineering and scientific work).
  • The Effects of Assigned Versus Participatively Set Goals, and Individual Differences When Goal Difficulty is Held Constant, 1979 (clerical test).
  • and performance appraisal activities, coding, managerial training, card sorting, die casting, customer service, and pastry work (see study for citations).

“Twenty laboratory studies supported the above results either partially or totally (see study for list).”

Feedback vs. No Feedback

“Integrating the two sets of studies points to one unequivocal conclusion: neither [feedback] alone nor goals alone is sufficient to affect performance. Both are necessary. Together they appear sufficient to improve task performance.”

Why Does Goal Setting Often Lead to Improved Performance?

“1. Direction. Most fundamentally goals direct attention and action.”
“2. Effort. Since different goals may require different amounts of effort, effort is mobilized in proportion to the perceived requirements of the goal or task. Thus, more effort is mobilized to work on hard tasks (which are accepted) than easy tasks. Sales (1970) found that higher work loads produce higher subjective effort, faster heart rates, and higher output per unit time than lower work loads.”
“3. Persistence. Persistence is nothing more than directed effort extended over time; thus it is a combination of the previous two mechanisms.”
“4. Strategy Development. While the above three mechanisms are relatively direct in their effects, this last mechanism is indirect. It involves developing strategies or action plans for attaining one’s goals.”

Participatory vs. Forced

“Participation has long been recommended by social scientists as a means of getting subordinates or workers committed to organizational goals and/or of reducing resistance to change. However, an extensive review of the participation in decision-making literature by Locke and Schweiger (1979), found no consistent difference in the effectiveness of topdown (“autocratic”) decision making and decisions made with subordinate participation:”

  • Goal Characteristics and Personality Factors In a Management By-Objectives Program, 1970.
  • Effects of Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976.
  • Different Goal Setting Treatments and Their Effects on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1977.
  • Assigned Versus Participative Goal Setting With Educated and Uneducated Woods Workers, 1975.
  • Effects of Assigned and Participative Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976.
  • Importance of Participative Goal Setting and Anticipated Rewards on Goal Difficulty and Job Performance, 1978.
  • The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
  • The Effects of Assigned Versus Participatively Set Goals, KR, and Individual Differences When Goal Difficulty is Held Costant, 1979.
  • The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975.
  • Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979

“There appear to be two possible mechanisms by which participation could affect task motivation. First, participation can lead to the setting of higher goals than would be the case without participation. Second, participation could, in some cases, lead to greater goal acceptance than assigned goals.”

“Likert has pointed out that when assigned goal setting is effective as in the above studies, it may be because the supervisors who assign the goals behave in a supportive manner. It may be that supportiveness is more crucial than participation in achieving goal acceptance. Participation itself, of course, may entail supportiveness.”

“Further, it is possible that the motivational effects of participation are not as important in gaining performance improvement as are its cognitive effects. Locke found that the single most successful field experiment on participation to date stressed the cognitive benefits; participation was used to get good ideas from workers as to how to improve performance efficiency.” -Participative Decision-Making: An Experimental Study in a Hospital, 1973.

Full study here.

1982

The Importance of Union Acceptance for Productivity Improvement Through Goal Setting

“Interviews were conducted with union business agents on conditions necessary for their support of a goal setting program. Subsequent to the interviews, goals were assigned to 39 truck drivers. The results were analyzed using a design that included a comparison group (N= 35). The results showed a significant increase in productivity for the drivers who received specific goals. When the conditions necessary for the union’s support of the goal setting program were no longer met, there was a wildcat strike.” –Abstract

The study was estimated to have saved the company $2.7 million dollars through increased productivity.

1989

The Effect of Goal-Setting and Daily Electronic Feedback on In-Home Energy Use

300 households were assigned to one of six groups, with 4 of those groups being given a goal to reduce household energy consumption by 10% during the following year. Of those four groups, one received daily feedback (IND), another monthly feedback (MEF), another was instructed to monitor their energy consumption by themselves (SMO), and another received only information about how to conserve energy, receiving no feedback (INF).

As can be seen in the chart below, over the following year the groups reduced their energy consumption in proportion to how frequently they received feedback, with the daily feedback group going above and beyond the 10% goal and reducing consumption by 12% for some time.

importance of feedback on goal achievement

Full study here.

1990

Improving Safety Performance With Goal Setting and Feedback

Three departments which were lagging behind in their compliance with safety guidelines were selected for this year-long study. During the 3 month baseline period, average safety compliance (e.g. wearing leather gloves while welding; clearing away tripping hazards, etc…) was around 55%. Compliance was estimated using four observers, who made a total of 167 observations throughout the entire study. After the baseline period, employees were given an hour-long safety training session. Compliance increased about 10%.

After another three months, employees were told to set the challenging goal of increasing compliance to 90%. During the following 4 months, compliance once again increased by about 10%. Finally, a large graph was hung in a prominent location in each department, containing the departments average safety compliance (similar to the graph below). Compliance immediately shot up above the goal target, showing that a goal is much more likely to be successfully pursued when frequent feedback is provided (the graph was updated three times a week).

importance of feedback 2

“People tend to subconsciously set their own goals when they receive performance feedback.”

Abstract here.

1997

Integrating “Classic” and “Contemporary” Approaches to Achievement Motivation: A Hierarchical Model of Approach and Avoidance Achievement Motivation.

This study introduces the trichotomous model of achievement motivation, combining the mastery/performance model with the approach/avoidance model into the trichotomous mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance model:

“Thus, three independent achievement goals are posited: A mastery goal focused on the development of competence or the attainment of task mastery, a performance-approach goal focused on the attainment of competence relative to others, and a performance-avoidance goal focused on the avoidanec of incompetence relative to others. Master and performance-approach goals are construed as approach orientations… wheras performance-avoidance goal is construed as an avoidance orientation.”

“Performance goals were presumed to lead to the “helpless” response pattern upon failure, because failure directly implies a lack of ability; learning goals, on the other hand, were posited to lead to the “mastery” response pattern, because failure feedback could simply be construed as helpful information in the process of developing competence or mastering a task.”

“Individuals high in need for achievement are drawn to achievement activities because they anticipate the pride that they will experience if successful, whereas those high in fear of failure find achievement activities aversive because they anticipate the shame that they will experience if unsuccessful.”

trichotomous, hierarchical model of achievement motivation

This model was later expanded by others into a 2×2 framework (performance-approach, performance-avoidance; mastery-approach, mastery-avoidance).

Full study here.

2000

The Effects of Goal Setting and Self-Instruction Training on The Performance of Unionized Employees

“This study assesses the effectiveness of goal setting, goal setting plus training in self-instruction, and being urged to do one’s best on the performance of unionized employees (n = 32). Appraisals were made prior to and 10 weeks following three interventions. ANCOVA indicated that employees who set specific, difficult goals had significantly higher performance than those in the doing one’s best and those doing goal setting plus self-instruction.” –Abstract

However, despite the claims of the abstract, while the results are statistically significant, the effect size is small enough to call into question the effectiveness of the intervention (e.g. the numbers all look pretty much the same):

goal setting not always effective

Full study here.

2001

A 2 x 2 Achievement Goal Framework.

Until 2001, when this study was published, goals were divided into three types: mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance (see the trichotomous hierarchical model):

Mastery Performance-Approach Performance-Avoidance
I will score higher than last time. I will score the highest in my class. I will avoid scoring worse than my classmates.
I will exercise three times a week. I will look sexy by losing 5 pounds. I will stop looking ugly by losing 5 pounds.
I will learn how to get my work done better and faster. I will get a good performance review. I will avoid getting negative feedback.

 

A mastery goal was one where a person tried to accomplish something in absolute or intrapersonal terms, e.g. setting a new personal best or learning a new skill.
A performance-approach goal was one where a person tried to do better than their peers, e.g. scoring higher or getting promoted.
A performance-avoidance goal was one where a person tried to avoid doing worse than their peers, e.g. avoid embarrassment or negative feedback.

Until this study, it was assumed that mastery goals were the best, performance-approach goals were sometimes good and sometimes bad, and performance-avoidance goals were always bad. The implicit assumption was there there were no bad mastery goals (in other words, no mastery-avoidance goals.)

This study challenged those assumption by first proving that master-avoidance goals exist, and second proving that each goal type can be useful, depending on the circumstances.

Study details here. Full study here.

2002

Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation

This is another of Locke’s goal-setting literature reviews.

“We found a positive, linear function in that the highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance. Performance leveled off or decreased only when the limits of ability were reached or when commitment to a highly difficult goal lapsed.”

“We found that specific, difficult goals consistently led to higher performance than urging people to do their best. In short,
when people are asked to do their best, they do not do so. This is because do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically. This allows for a wide range of acceptable performance levels, which is not the case when a goal level is specified.”

“Other factors being equal, expectancy is said to be linearly and positively related to performance. However, because difficult goals are harder to attain than easy goals, expectancy of goal success would presumably be negatively related to performance. The apparent contradiction between the two theories is resolved by distinguishing expectancy within versus expectancy between goal conditions. Locke, Motowidlo, and Bobko (1986) found that when goal level is held constant, which is implicitly assumed by valence–instrumentality–expectancy theory, higher expectancies lead to higher levels of performance. Across goal levels, lower expectancies, associated with higher goal levels, are associated with higher performance.”

“Goals affect performance through four mechanisms. First, goals serve a directive function; they direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant activities…Second, goals have an energizing function. High goals lead to greater effort than low goals. This has been shown with tasks that (a) directly entail physical effort, (b) entail repeated performance of simple cognitive tasks, such as addition; (c)
include measurements of subjective effort; and (d) include physiological indicators of effort. Third, goals affect persistence. When participants are allowed to control the time they spend on a task, hard goals prolong effort. Fourth, goals affect action indirectly by leading to the arousal, discovery, and/or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies.”

“An assigned goal is as effective as one that is set participatively provided that the purpose or rationale for the goal is given. However, if the goal is assigned tersely (e.g., “Do this . . . ”) without explanation, it leads to performance that is significantly lower than for a participatively set goal… the primary benefit of participation in decision making is cognitive rather than motivational in that it stimulates information exchange. For example, Latham et al. (1994) found that with goal difficulty level controlled, participation in goal setting had no beneficial effect on performance. However, people who participated with others in formulating task strategies performed significantly better and had higher self-efficacy than those who did not participate in formulating strategies.”

“When the goal is very difficult, paying people only if they reach the goal (i.e., a task-and-bonus system) can hurt performance. Once people see that they are not getting the reward, their personal goal and their self-efficacy drop and, consequently, so does their performance. This drop does not occur if the goal is moderately difficult or if people are given a difficult goal and are paid for performance (e.g., piece rate) rather than goal attainment.”

“Self-efficacy enhances goal commitment. Leaders can raise the self-efficacy of their subordinates (a) by ensuring adequate training to increase mastery that provides success experiences, (b) by role modeling or finding models with whom the person can identify, and (c) through persuasive communication that expresses confidence that the person can attain the goal.”

“For goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires. If the goal is to cut down 30 trees in a day, people have no way to tell if they are on target unless they know how many trees have been cut. When people find they are below target, they normally increase their effort or try a new strategy.”

“As the complexity of the task increases and higher level skills and strategies have yet to become automatized, goal effects are dependent on the ability to discover appropriate task strategies.”

“Goals are, at the same time, an object or outcome to aim for and a standard for judging satisfaction… People with high goals produce more because they are dissatisfied with less. The bar for their satisfaction is set at a high level. This is why they are motivated to do more than those with easy goals… The highest degree of anticipated satisfaction, averaged across all grade outcomes, was for students with a goal of C, and the lowest was for students with a goal of earning an A.”

“Numerous studies have shown that setting a specific difficult goal leads to significant increases in employee productivity.”

specific difficult goals are the best

“We noted earlier that on tasks that are complex for people, learning goals can be superior to performance goals. However, there have been almost no studies examining the use of both together. Intriguing findings have been obtained by Harackiewicz, Barron, Carter, Lehto, and Elliott (1997) with college students. Performance goals improved grades but did not affect interest, whereas learning goals enhanced interest in the class but did not affect grades.”

essential elements of goal setting theory and the high performance cycle

2005

Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation

In this study, the authors examined the usefulness of avoidance goals for helping 591 smokers quit. Avoidance goals have already been repeatedly shown to do worse than approach goals. The reason the authors tried again was because they split avoidance goals into two types: prevention and cure.

“As with traditional conceptualizations of avoidance goals, some avoidance goals involve preventing a negative state from occurring (e.g., I do not want to get cancer). However, other avoidance goals involve curing a negative state that already exists (e.g., I want to get rid of a chronic cough).”

The reason why cure-avoidance goals might be more effective than prevent-avoidance goals:

“Researchers have argued that trying to stay away from a state elicits anxiety, which in turn undermines how much effort people will put forth to work on the goal. Moreover, even if progress is made on a prevent goal, the difficulty of detecting the continued absence of something may make the progress hard to recognize. For example, people trying to prevent developing cancer may find it difficult to detect a reduction in the risk of developing cancer and thus have a hard time determining whether they have made any progress on their goal.

In contrast to prevent goals, it may be easier to detect progress when working to meet a cure goal.”

In this study, the smokers were asked why they wanted to quit. From what they wrote, their goals were coded:

“Goals were coded as approach when the goal described something the participants wanted to get as a result of quitting (e.g., I want to get healthy). Goals were coded as prevent when the goal described something that was not currently true that they wanted to avoid (e.g., I do not want to develop
lung cancer). Goals were coded as cure when the goal described something that was currently true that the participant wanted to get rid of (e.g., I want to stop others from nagging).”

Those with a higher percentage of cure-avoidance goals were more likely to have quit:

quit smoking avoidance cure goals

Abstract here.

2006

The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation

This is a high-level review paper. See Integrating “Classic” and “Contemporary” Approaches to Achievement Motivation, 1997, for an introduction to the hierarchical model.

“Approach motivation may be defined as the energization of behavior by, or the direction of behavior toward, positive stimuli (objects, events, possibilities), whereas avoidance motivation may be defined as the energization of behavior by, or the direction of behavior away from, negative stimuli (objects, events, possibilities). Five aspects of this definition are considered further in the following.”

“A core premise of the hierarchical model is that the approach-avoidance distinction is fundamental and basic to motivation, so much so that it may be used as a conceptual lens through which to view the structure and function of self-regulation.”

“Goals are posited to serve a directional function in motivation. That is, goals focus on a specific, cognitively represented end point, and serve to guide the individual’s behavior toward or away from that end point. Goals are conscious, intentional commitments, although once in place in the cognitive system, they may be activated and may operate in automatic, non-conscious fashion”

“In the hierarchical model, goals are not sufficient to account for motivated behavior, it is also necessary to consider the motivation underlying goals. This motivation comes from many different sources and many be represented in many different ways.”

Full study here.

Integrating Theories of Motivation

In this paper, the authors highlight their new theory of motivation – temporal motivation theory. This theory combines several other motivation theories into one. In particular:

  • Expectancy Theory, which states that the more likely a goal is to be accomplish and the larger the potential reward, the greater the motivation (e.g. if a student thinks he is stupid, he might not put in any effort to study, thinking the endeavor to be pointless).
  • Hyperbolic Discounting, which states that the further away a reward is into the future, the less it is worth now (e.g. receiving $150 ten years from now would be worth much less to most people than receiving $150 in the next five minutes).
  • Impulsivity, which states that for people who are more impulsive, future rewards are worth a lot less than for those who are less impulsive (e.g. impulsive kids have trouble studying, because the future is worth less to them).

More on temporal motivation theory here.

Full study here.

2007

Improving Motivation and Goal Setting for Return to Work in a Population on Sick Leave: A Controlled Study

“The objective of this study was to examine the effect of an intervention focused on motivation, goal setting, and planning of return to work. A total of 2,795 people, across 6 municipalities, on sick leave for at least 21 days received a questionnaire; 1,256 with a self-assessed poor prognosis for fast return to work were eligible for the study. An examination by a specialist in social medicine, followed by additional counselling by a social worker, was offered to 510 residents in two municipalities and accepted by 264 (52%). The goal was to enhance motivation, goal setting, and planning of return to work. The duration of the sick leave and the chance of being gainfully employed was analyzed. The intervention neither shortened sick leave periods nor increased the likelihood of gainful employment after one year. A low-cost counseling program addressing motivation, goal setting, and planning of return to work did not improve vocational outcomes or reduce the duration of sick leave.” –Abstract

The actual goal setting intervention used was not discussed in the study, making it difficult to learn useful information (e.g. certain kinds of goal setting could be more or less useful for helping people get employment).

2008

Self-Efficacy and Resource Allocation: Support For a Nonmonotonic, Discontinuous Model

The relationship between goal difficulty and motivation is complex. There are four different theories which attempt to describe that relationship. What is problematic is that there is evidence for each of the theories. This study provides a brief review of the conflicting literature, as well as providing its own support for one of the theories.

positive model

The positive model is the most widely believed, perhaps in part because it is also the most intuitive. The more easy a task, the more likely it can be accomplished. There is no point in expending energy (motivation) if it will just be wasted. Conversely, if the goal is certain to be achieved, it makes sense to expend energy trying to accomplish it – the energy won’t be wasted, as the reward will definitely be acquired.

negative model

The negative model stands in direct contradiction of the positive model. The idea is that in order for a more difficult goal to be accomplished, more energy must be expended (e.g. in improving one’s skills). On the other hand, if success is all but guaranteed, it would be a waste to allocate more than the minimum (e.g. there’s no point getting excited and motivated about the goal of eating breakfast – that’s a waste of mental energy and glucose; if you want to eat breakfast, it will probably happen, excitement or not).

inverted U

According to the inverted U model, motivation is a function of expectations of success multiplied by the value of the incentive, which in turn is the inverse of expectations of success. Although this model would seem to be a compromise of the positive and negative models, it would be more accurate to consider it an extension of the positive model. This is because it makes one of the same assumptions as the positive model, which is that low expectations of success are de-motivating, and that high expectations of success are motivating. The reason this model is an extension is because of the second assumption that it makes – if a goal is easy to accomplish, it must offer a small reward; conversely, if a goal is hard to accomplish, it must offer a large reward.

The inverse U comes from the multiplication of goal difficulty with implied reward size:

Low difficulty is good, but implies low reward, and thus low motivation (.9 * (1-.9) = .09).
High difficult is bad, but implies high reward, and thus low motivation (.1 * (1-.01) = .09).
Medium difficulty is OK, but implies medium reward, and thus high motivation (.5 * (1 – .5) = .25).

goal difficulty impact on motivation

The discontinuous model should be considered an extension of the negative model. Motivation is low for easy goals because the brain is frugal – there is no point getting excited and wasting energy on something simple and easy, like eating breakfast, taking a shower, sending an e-mail, etc… 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. Note, an implicit assumption this model makes is that more difficult goals are also more rewarding. For self-set goals, this is a reasonable assumption (e.g. memorizing the entire dictionary is hard but not motivating… of course, what reasonable person would set a goal like that?)

This model is an extension in that after a certain level of difficulty, motivation immediately drops to near zero. The assumption is that past a certain point, people will feel the task is too challenging – that even with a high level of motivation, their resources or abilities are not enough.

I personally believe the discontinuous model is the most accurate, in part because it best fits with my life experience, and in part because it is supported by Piers Steel, the motivation scientist I respect the most. Ironically, the positive model better fits Piers’s own theory of motivation, so I’m not sure why he supports the discontinuous model in his book, The Procrastination Equation, instead.

According to Edwin Locke, “The apparent contradiction between the two theories is resolved by distinguishing expectancy within versus expectancy between goal conditions. Locke, Motowidlo, and Bobko (1986) found that when goal level is held constant, which is implicitly assumed by valence–instrumentality–expectancy theory, higher expectancies lead to higher levels of performance. Across goal levels, lower expectancies, associated with higher goal levels, are associated with higher performance.”

Said differently, the contradiction can be reconciled by treating goal difficulty and goal expectancy as separate constructs – to maximize motivation, you want high expectancy, but also high perceived difficulty. How to have high expectancy and also high difficulty is another matter, as usually the two constructs have an inverse relationship (e.g. becoming a billionaire is high difficulty but very low expectancy).

Full study here.

2009

The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal

Goals can be classified into many different dimensions. One of the most popular models is the 2×2, approach vs. avoidance vs. mastery vs. performance model:

Approach Avoidance
Mastery Mastery-Approach Mastery-Avoidance
Performance Performance-Approach Performance-Avoidance

 

To better understand what each of these dimensions mean, you can read this page on goal setting or this study which first proposed this model. Although past research agreed that mastery goals are negatively correlated with procrastination (that is, those who make mastery goals are less likely to procrastinate), while avoidance goals are positively correlated with procrastination (that is, those who make avoidance goals are more likely to procrastinate), there has been no consensus on which dimension is more important – mastery/performance or avoidance/approach.

As can be seen in the table below, the avoidance/approach dimension is more importance for predicting procrastination than the mastery/performance dimension. Specifically, those with a mastery-approach orientation were the least likely to procrastinate, while those with a mastery-avoidance orientation were the most likely to procrastinate.

Goel Orientation in Predicting Procrastination

Study details here. Abstract here.

2011

Performance and Learning Goals for Emotion Regulation

In an attempt to feel better after experiencing negative emotion, different people use different strategies. Some talk about their problems with others, other try to distract themselves from thinking those negative thoughts, others try to find something positive from the experience.

There are two strategies which people can use on their own, without help from others: cognitive reappraisal, and thought suppression/rumination. Cognitive reappraisal is a strategy so effective in dealing with negative emotion that an entire field of psychotherapy has developed around it – cognitive behavioral therapy. Essentially, it involves re-framing negative events and thoughts into positive ones.

For example, since I was 13 I’ve experience a wide variety of health problems. At first, I thought about the problem negatively. However, I gradually started looking for the ‘silver-lining’. Because of those health problems, I developed a number of positive health habits, like regular exercise, I developed a degree of persistence and self-confidence I doubt I would have without having had such a large problem to tackle, and I learned how to think critically, having had to deal with dozens of doctors providing false information. Now when I think back to those years of physical pain, I see an experience to be proud of, rather than one to complain and feel bad about.

Thought suppression and rumination are as ineffective as cognitive reappraisal is effective. Rumination involves thinking through, over and over, what went wrong and why. Although one would think that ‘processing’ the emotion would cause it to subside, usually the opposite happens, causing the negative emotion to persist. This is because what we focus on grows stronger. Expressing anger, for example, simply makes one angrier. However, that doesn’t make suppression effective.

Thought suppression is a strategy of avoidance, e.g. watch TV and eat sugary food in an attempt to redirect attention elsewhere. It seems obvious that there are two strategies for dealing with negative emotion – either express it or suppress it. However, neither work. It’s the third option – cognitive reappraisal, that does the job (or think about happy times, get support from friends, etc…).

Those with a performance-avoidance goal towards emotion regulation were most likely to use a rumination/suppression strategy, while those with a mastery goal towards emotion regulation were most likely to use a cognitive reappraisal strategy.

Study details here. Full study here.

Achievement Motives and Emotional Processes in Children During Problem-Solving: Two Experimental Studies of Their Relation to Performance in Different Achievement Goal Conditions

What goal types are most effective for encouraging performance and happiness in children?

In this study, two personality variables and three experimental conditions were investigated. Those with a high motive to achieve success performed better and reported higher satisfaction and happiness than those with a high motive to avoid failure. In addition, those with a high motive to avoid failure reported higher anxiety and worry. As personality variables are difficult to change, while this information is interesting, it is not yet useful.

Of the three experimental conditions, those who were told to write a mastery goal did the best. Compare the mastery instructions with the performance instructions:

Mastery Performance
‘‘The problems you have the opportunity to answer today were constructed in a way which will allow you to discover new ways and strategies to solve them if you are working carefully on them. What we are interested in is how much you improve your skills by working with this type of problem. When you have finished, you will have the opportunity to learn whether you did well and made progress toward mastering these tasks.’’ ‘‘The problems you have the opportunity to answer today were constructed in a way which will allow you to compare your results with others. What we are interested in is how well you perform on the tasks as compared with other sixth-graders. When you have finished, you will have the opportunity to know how well you performed compared with others.’’

However, the personality type of the participants impacted the effect of goal type (performance vs. mastery). Those high in motive to achieve success performed better in the mastery than in the performance conditions, and those with a high motive to avoid failure did even worse in the performance-avoidance condition.

Study details here. Full study here.

 

3

A 2 x 2 Achievement Goal Framework

Until 2001, when this study was published, goals were divided into three types: mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance:

Mastery Performance-Approach Performance-Avoidance
I will score higher than last time. I will score the highest in my class. I will avoid scoring worse than my classmates.
I will exercise three times a week. I will look sexy by losing 5 pounds. I will stop looking ugly by losing 5 pounds.
I will learn how to get my work done better and faster. I will get a good performance review. I will avoid getting negative feedback.

 

A mastery goal was one where a person tried to accomplish something in absolute or intrapersonal terms, e.g. setting a new personal best or learning a new skill.
A performance-approach goal was one where a person tried to do better than their peers, e.g. scoring higher or getting promoted.
A performance-avoidance goal was one where a person tried to avoid doing worse than their peers, e.g. avoid embarrassment or negative feedback.

Until this study, it was assumed that mastery goals were the best, performance-approach goals were sometimes good and sometimes bad, and performance-avoidance goals were always bad. The implicit assumption was there there were no bad mastery goals (in other words, no mastery-avoidance goals.)

This study challenged those assumption by first proving that master-avoidance goals exist, and second proving that each goal type can be useful, depending on the circumstances.

Experiments 1 & 2

Exploratory factor analysis was used to break down the 12 goal setting questions into 4 factors, as seen below. Confirmatory factor analysis was later used to show that mastery-avoidance and mastery-approach better fit the data than mastery alone.

2x2 factor analysis

These questions in turn were derived from a series of pilot studies. The questions for performance-approach, performance-avoidance, and mastery-approach were taken from prior questionnaires, while questions for mastery-avoidance were created. Once combined, the factor analysis above was used to confirm that each set of questions represented and exposed different goal-setting components. The questions used and the factor they correspond to can be seen below:

questions and factor loading for goal setting 2x2 model

Those with a high motive to achieve were found to be more likely to use approach goals, while those with a high motive to avoid failure were found to be more likely to use avoidance goals.

Experiment 3

Those more likely to use performance-approach goals were more likely to have higher exam scores, while those more likely to use performance-avoidance goals were more likely to have lower exam scores.
On the other hand, those more likely to use performance-approach goals were more likely to visit the health center, while those more likely to use mastery-approach goals were less likely.

Full study here.

Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 x 2 achievement goal framework.Journal of personality and social psychology80(3), 501-519.

1 2 3 9