In this post I’ll cover some of the key principles of goal setting.
But first, a confession, I never used to set much store by goals myself.
Maybe it’s because when I played football as a boy I was always a defender. This was at a time when defenders weren’t Fancy Dans spraying passes around and popping up in opposing penalty areas to score goals with outrageous volleys. In those days defenders defended* and that’s what I did.
Therefore, my role, at least as I saw it, and as defined by my technical limitations, was to stem creativity, block progress and ultimately to prevent goals.
Maybe another reason that I never paid much heed to goals is because when I left school I didn’t want to do what everybody else did. I took my cues from the culture I was immersed in: bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Fall, books by William Burroughs and Albert Camus, and films like Taxi Driver and Eraserhead.
All I wanted to do was buck the system and be different (although, in truth, I was lacking confidence and a bit lost at the time).
In any case, I rarely looked beyond the end of the week (some might say I rarely looked beyond the end of my nose) and ambitions, plans and goals were all part of the system – restrictive and dull as far as I was concerned. So I wanted no part of them.
Or maybe it’s because of my experiences with goals when I eventually entered the corporate world, having had a few years of relative independence practising as a lawyer at the bar. I found then that I was forced to shoe-horn what I was doing into the simple framework of SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound), without any real consideration of what these goals were meant to achieve.
Anyway, whatever the reason, I’ve learned a little bit more about goals and goal setting now, so I’ve had a change of heart.
Therefore, in this post and in some more to follow, I’ll take a look at what goals are really all about, why they most definitely are not a waste of time and why they are such a valuable tool in any personal or professional development strategy.
Basic principles of goal setting
The point about the SMART goals framework is not that it is wrong, just that it is incomplete and an oversimplification of what goals should be all about.
So, here are the principles of goal setting based on SMART goals that useful.
Clarity and specificity
When setting goals, it’s important to be clear and specific about what you want to achieve. Vague goals make it difficult to determine whether or not you’ve actually accomplished them. So, ensure that your goals are precise and well-defined. For example, instead of saying “lose weight,” you might say “lose 10 pounds by 1 August.” This gives you a more tangible target to work towards.
Realistic and challenging goals
It’s crucial to strike a balance between setting goals that are realistic and those that are challenging. Set goals that you can realistically achieve, but still stretch your capabilities and motivate you to put in effort.
If a goal is too easy, you may not feel any sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, if it’s too difficult, you might become discouraged. Remember, the key is finding that “sweet spot” where a goal is achievable yet also pushes you to grow.
Measurable and time-bound objectives
In order to track your progress and ultimately determine the success of your goal setting, your goals should be measurable and time-bound. This means establishing specific indicators of progress or outcome that can be quantified. For example, if your goal is to “increase sales,” make it more explicit by saying “increase sales by 20% in the next quarter.” Setting a deadline for your goals not only gives you a sense of urgency but also allows you to measure progress and celebrate your achievements along the way.
If we want to think more beyond the SMART goals, the first point to understand is that we are all goal focused organisms. Goals direct our conscious actions and also many of our unconscious actions. If you don’t believe this, just consider one part of what I was doing when I was trying to buck the system in my youth.
I had a band. Therefore, from time to time I’d have to drag myself off the sofa to go and buy some new guitar strings.
This would involve walking to the bus stop, getting on the bus when it arrived and making sure I paid the correct fare. I’d have to keep a look out for my stop so that I didn’t miss it and then make sure I got off the bus at the right place.
I’d need to remember to get some cash from the bank, then I’d make my way to the shop, avoiding the traffic as I crossed the street. I might then try to persuade Keith behind the counter to let me play the Fender Telecaster on display that was just like Joe Strummer’s.
If I was lucky and Keith came up trumps, I’d then have to decide what, from my limited repertoire, was likely to be the least embarrassing thing for me to play. Eventually I’d buy the strings and head home.**
So, the most mundane of tasks actually require us to carry out a complex sequence of actions all involving goals of some kind, many of which we are not even aware of, and all in the service of some higher order values-driven needs or goals. In my case, the higher order goals directing my actions involved making sure I was properly equipped to play music, so that I could rehearse, play gigs and eventually get a record deal and make it big.
Of course, goals do need to be grounded in reality if they are to be achieved, which is why I’m now a coach, rather than an ageing rock star.
In the corporate world the SMART goals paradigm is all that most people know about goals.
It has therefore become the be-all and end-all of goal setting, when it fact it represents a very small part of the thinking that needs to go into the process.
As a result, goals, objectives, KPIs – whatever they are dressed up as – very often become dead weights dragging people down, rather than the motivational, performance enhancing tools that they ought to be. This is one of the main reasons that people end up thinking that goals don’t work.
Goals in fact are much more than just mechanisms for achieving things. They have been called “internal representations of desired states or outcomes” (Austin and Vancouver, 1996) and, because of the complexity and variety inherent in the whole idea of goals, they can provide us with a framework for understanding human desires, motives and behaviours.
In fact, it is misleading to talk of goals as if they are just a one dimensional concept, which is very often what those who criticise goals will do.
There are more than twenty different types of goals, and the benefits goals can provide us depend upon selecting the right kinds of goals for the specific circumstances you are dealing with. So, to suggest that goals are counter-productive when it comes to making long term progress, is in my view, like suggesting that brushes are ineffective because you can’t paint a watercolour with a hairbrush.
Principles of goal setting: performance vs. outcome goals
One of the best examples of how different types of goals can be suitable in different circumstances can be see when we differentiate between mastery goals and outcome goals.
- Performance goals focus on your personal improvement and skill development. They are within your control and based on your own efforts. For example, improving your sprint time by 10% within three months.
- Outcome goals depend on factors beyond your control, such as external competition or circumstances. For example, winning a race or securing a specific job position. Focusing too heavily on outcome goals can lead to anxiety and disappointment. Therefore, emphasize performance goals to ensure progress and maintain a sense of control.
When setting goals, consider the complexity of the tasks involved. Break down complex tasks into smaller, achievable sub-goals or actions. This can help you better understand and manage the process, leading to increased motivation and success.
For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, break it down into sub-goals such as:
- Build endurance with shorter races.
- Increase weekly mileage.
- Incorporate strength training and cross-training activities.
For your goals to be effective, you must be committed to achieving them. Set goals that truly matter to you and are connected to your values. Monitor your progress regularly and make adjustments as needed, since maintaining commitment and focusing on progress helps you overcome setbacks and stay motivated.
Motivation and self-efficacy
Developing a strong sense of motivation and self-efficacy is crucial in achieving your desired goals. Motivation is the driving force that pushes you towards your objectives, while self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to successfully perform the necessary tasks. Keep in mind that setting achievable yet challenging goals is key in fostering motivation and enhancing self-confidence.
To boost your motivation, consider the following:
- Identify your purpose and understand how the goal aligns with your values
- Break your goals down into smaller, manageable steps
- Continually remind yourself of the benefits and rewards of achieving your goal
- Surround yourself with supportive and inspiring people
Subjective Wellbeing and Mental Health
Goal setting has a significant impact on your subjective wellbeing and mental health, shaping your emotions and sense of purpose. Pursuing meaningful goals that align with your core values and beliefs increases life satisfaction and overall happiness.
To maintain a healthy mental state while working towards your goals:
- Ensure your goals are realistic and achievable
- Keep track of your progress and celebrate small achievements along the way
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance to avoid burnout
- Adapt to setbacks and view challenges as opportunities for growth
- Seek professional help if stress or negative emotions become overwhelming
Behaviour Change and Core Values
One of the primary purposes of goal setting is to bring about positive changes in your life. When setting goals, align them with your core values to facilitate meaningful behaviour change and improve overall life satisfaction.
For long-lasting behaviour change:
- Identify your core values and set goals that align with them
- Be patient and allow yourself time to adjust to new habits and routines
- Connect your goal to a bigger purpose or meaning
- Seek support from friends, family, or professionals
Remember to keep it brief and friendly while focusing on giving relevant information.
Next up I’ll look further beyond the SMART goals construct to see how to make goals actually work for us:
The essential but often missing step in goal pursuit
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the key components of effective goal setting?
When setting goals, it’s essential to make sure they are clear, specific, and challenging but attainable. You should also consider establishing a timeframe for accomplishing your goals. Finally, remember to periodically review and adjust your goals as needed to ensure you remain on track.
What is the SMART criteria for setting goals?
The SMART criteria help create well-defined and measurable goals. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The idea is that by ensuring your goals meet these criteria, you increase your chances of successful goal-setting and progress tracking. Although, as I note in this article, there is more to goal setting than SMART goals.
How does goal-setting theory affect motivation?
Goal-setting theory suggests that establishing clear, specific, and challenging goals can significantly boost motivation, if those goals are concordant with the individual’s strengths and values. Doing so encourages individuals to invest more effort, time, and commitment to achieving their desired outcomes. Additionally, monitoring progress and celebrating milestones can further fuel motivation through a sense of accomplishment.
How can goal setting improve performance?
Goal setting can enhance performance by providing a clear focus and direction, thus helping you allocate resources and energy more efficiently. Additionally, well-defined goals allow for better time management and prioritisation of tasks. Achieving smaller milestones along the way can also boost self-confidence and drive further progress.
What are the main steps to set successful goals?
- Reflect on your desires: Assess your values, aspirations, and current situation to identify areas for improvement or growth.
- Be specific: Define your goals in clear, specific terms.
- Make them measurable: Set benchmarks and indicators to track progress.
- Ensure achievability: Set goals that are challenging yet realistic, considering your available resources and constraints.
- Align with relevancy: Your goals should align with your broader life objectives, your strengths and your values.
- Set a timeframe: Include a deadline to create a sense of urgency and drive forward momentum.
- Review and adjust: Regularly reassess your goals to ensure they remain relevant and adjust if necessary to account for changes in your circumstances or priorities.
Austin, James T., and Jeffrey B. Vancouver. “Goal constructs in psychology: Structure, process, and content.” Psychological bulletin 120.3 (1996): 338.
Grant, A. M. (2012) An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: An evidence-based framework for teaching and practice. International Coaching Psychology Review, 7(2), 146-165.
* Actually some defenders of that era could play. Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer are good examples. Even some of my peers could too. I remember one kid I used to play against called Michael. He was captain of England at under 15 level. He was a defender too, but had more talent than anybody else I ever encountered at that level.
**I credit the late and much missed Tony Grant’s teaching and scholarship for the inspiration for this post, and much of my thinking on goals. The article cited above is a tremendous explanation of goal theory. It includes the example of going out to buy biscuits to illustrate the ubiquity of goal focused activity, which was the basis of my guitar string example.