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[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 dependent 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 are applicable not only to the individual but to groups, organizational units, and entire organizations. 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
Is that true? Yes.
-Truck drivers were first instructed to do their best – to transport as much material as fast as possible. No change. After being helped through a goal-setting process similar to the one I’m about to describe, the truck drivers earned their company an extra $2.7 million dollars over the next 4 months.2
-After going through a 1-day goal setting workshop, tree loggers immediately started increasing their performance. The additional woodcut over the following 3 months was estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars.3
-College students who were more likely to set effective goals were also less likely to procrastinate.4
The components required for effective goal-setting are provided below.
What You Will Learn
Effective Goal-Setting: Specific vs. Vague
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.5,6
There are four major reasons why specific goals are so much more effective than vague ones:
- 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 and if they need to make any changes.
- 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….”
- Specificity is exciting. The more specific the goal, the more vivid your thoughts when imagining the goal. The more vivid your thoughts, the most 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”?
- 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 make the goal easier to accomplish.
Easy vs. Difficult
According to expectancy theory and common sense, the easier a goal, the more motivated a person should be. After all, harder goals are less likely to be completed successfully, making real the chance that effort will be wasted. Who wants to waste the effort?
On the one hand, a large number of studies confirm exactly that – when there is a chance that effort will be wasted, motivation drops.7,8 On the other hand, several experimental studies in the field and over 30 in the laboratory have shown the opposite – the more difficult the goal, the greater the motivation and subsequent increase in performance.9 What’s going on?
Both set of studies are accurate.
People don’t like to waste their time with goals they think impossible, but people also like to be challenged.
We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success.8
This is the reason that there is an abundance of evidence that excessive optimism and fantasy visualization decreases rather than increases motivation.10 If your subconscious thinks the goal will be easy to accomplish, it won’t see the need of getting excited and motivated. On the other hand, if the goal is difficult but doable, it will literally energize you, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure.11 Even more, difficult goals usually carry much larger rewards. For which goal would you put down the remote to your TV? Earning an extra $500, or earning an extra $1,000,000?
In addition, challenging goals offer opportunities for learning and growth. Learning and growth are usually more interesting than mindless repetition, making challenging goals more motivating. However, if a goal is too hard or disproportionately challenging compared to the expected reward, motivation drops to zero.10
However much the benefits of setting difficult goals, the benefits of actually completing your goals are much larger. The more often you complete your goals, the greater your confidence and expectations of future success. The less often you complete your goals, the less your confidence and the greater your expectations of future failure. Expectations of future failure poison motivation, so don’t push too hard.
Goal Setting: Approach vs. Avoidance
Approach goals seek to expend effort in order to acquire a positive outcome (beauty, wealth, food). Avoidance goals seek to expend effort in order to avoid a negative outcome (lung cancer, debt, embarrassment). In all cases, a goal can be conceptualized as either approach or avoidance, giving you total control over this dimension.
“I will lose weight so that I can look good” vs. “I will lose weight so that I stop looking ugly.”
Both perspectives are motivating, but utilize different emotions and psychological pathways. Approach goals are usually exciting, while avoidance goals are usually stressful. Said differently, approach goals are pleasurable to think about, while avoidance goals are painful to think about.12
Pain can be an exceptionally powerful motivator but is sometimes used in place of what would have 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.
The reason avoidance goals are not universally more effective is because they’re sometimes too emotionally charged – thinking about the goal produces negative emotion and anxiety, which in turn leads to procrastination. Even when effective, the cost can sometimes be too high – jobs which are high in avoidance motivation have higher turnover.12
For these reasons, psychologists believe that approach goals are more effective than avoidance goals. However, there are several important nuances.12
First, in some domains, avoidance goals appear to more effective than approach goals.13 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.14
Second, some people are 1) more motivated by one goal type over the other and 2) can better or worse handle the resulting excitement or anxiety. In my case, I am highly motivated by avoidance goals, and can generally handle the resulting anxiety well.
Performance vs. Mastery
Do you think of your goals in terms of doing better than others, or in terms of learning?
The thought of doing better than others can be exciting and motivating. But the thought of doing worse can be unsettling. Distracting, even.
The thought of improving and learning can 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, but I think they’re discounting the energizing power of competition.
- If you’re confident and have a competitive spirit, go for performance. Otherwise, stick with mastery. In two studies, those who were told to create a performance goal but disliked competition ended up performing more poorly than those who disliked competition but were told to create a mastery goal. They experienced more worry and anxiety, which translated into procrastination.15
- If you’ve failed before, focus on learning. You’ll probably pursue the goal with less enthusiasm, having already failed. In addition, repeated failure indicates a lack of preparation – that some critical skill or combination of skills are missing. Focus on building up those skills, and performance will take care of itself.
Short-term vs. Long-term
Short-term goals are better than long-term goals. If the goal will take a long period of time to accomplish, then short-term sub-goals should be created. The three reasons why:
- There is less room for excuses. Compare the goal “I will lose 5 pounds within a year” with “I will lose 5 pounds within a year, 1 pound within the next two months, and go to the gym next Tuesday.” With the first goal, you have the leeway to procrastinate. With the second, your procrastination will get called out by having you miss your goal targets.
- You will have more opportunities to commit to your goal. Taking the time to think about why you want to complete your goal and deciding to make the effort to get there is commitment. Most people only commit at the beginning, or when they find their resolve and motivation slipping away. By having several shorter goals rather than one large one, you’ll have more beginnings, and therefore more opportunities to commit and increase your motivation.
- Because humans are short-term oriented, we care much more about things happening today and tomorrow than things happening next year. The idea of acquiring a reward is much more exciting if it can be had in the next few days or weeks, rather than months or years.
Fleeting Desire vs. Stable Longing
Try to think back to the last time you felt excited about one of your goals. Remember how energizing that felt? What happened? Why is it that that excitement seems to slip away so quickly?
Unless it’s about food or sex, your subconscious is simply terrible at staying on track. The reason inspirational speeches don’t keep us inspired is that our subconscious slowly replaces those visions of wealth, success, and happiness with images of reality. If you don’t want that to happen, you’ll have to periodically remind your subconscious that achieving your goal will lead to something good.
The more explicit you can make the connection between your goal your desires, the more motivation you’ll get. Eight times a day, I briefly review the reasons why I work: earning money, helping others, increasing my skills, and so on. Each time I do, I re-ignite my motivation and desire.
Recurse: The backward flow of motivation from goals
If you find yourself wondering why you’re doing something, the connection between your current task, your goal, and your reward is unclear. Motivation flows backwards, from reward to goal, from goal to sub-goal, and from sub-goal to task. The more clear you can make the connections, the more motivation that will flow backward.
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1. Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation, 2002.
2. The Importance of Union Acceptance for Productivity Improvement Through Goal Setting, 1982.
3. Improving Job Performance Through Training in Goal Setting, 1975.
4. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal, 2009.
5. Joint Effect of Feedback and Goal Setting on Performance: A Field Study of Residential Energy Conservation, 1978.
6. The Effects of Goal Setting and Self-Instruction Training on The Performance of Unionized Employees, 2000.
7. A Literature Review of Self-Efficacy and Effective Job Search, 2008.
8. The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, 2010.
9. Goal Setting and Task Performance, 1980.
10. Self-Efficacy and Resource Allocation: Support For a Nonmonotonic, Discontinuous Model, 2008.
11. Mental Contrasting and Goal Commitment: The Mediating Role of Energization, 2009.
12. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation, 2006.
13. A 2 x 2 Achievement Goal Framework, 2001.
14. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation, 2005.
15. Achievement Motives and Emotional Processes in Children, 2011.
16. The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure, 2007.