How goals work: 14 key research based findings

How goals work

Goals are the invisible forces that drive our actions, shape our achievements, and influence our motivation. They can be defined as internal representations of desired futures states (Austin and Vancouver, 1996)

Understanding how goals work can transform the way we approach tasks, challenges, and personal development.

Groundbreaking research by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the priniciples of goal setting and achievement. This article delves into these insights, offering guidance to how goals work so that you can use the power of goals to achieve your aims.

How goals work: goal functions

Goals, according to Locke, “have both an internal and an external aspect. Internally, they are ideas (desired ends); externally, they refer to the object or condition sought (e.g., a job, a sale, a certain performance level), The idea guides action to attain the object.”

Goals function in several ways to facilitate achievement:

  1. Directive Function: Goals direct attention towards relevant activities and away from irrelevant ones.
  2. Energizing Function: Higher goals lead to greater effort, both in behavioural and cognitive tasks.
  3. Persistence: Hard goals can prolong effort when individuals can control the time spent on a task. There is a trade-off between time and intensity of effort, with tight deadlines leading to a more rapid work pace.
  4. Indirect Action: Goals lead to the use of task-relevant information and strategies, which can include using existing knowledge and skills, drawing from a repertoire of skills in related contexts, or engaging in deliberate planning for new tasks.

How goals work: moderators of goal outcomes

According to Locke and Latham (2002), several moderators can influence the effectiveness of goal setting:

  • Goal Commitment: This is driven by the perceived importance of the goal and the individual’s self-efficacy. When people believe that a goal is important and feel confident in their ability to achieve it, they are more likely to commit to it and strive towards its accomplishment.
  • Feedback: Providing information on progress helps individuals gauge the extent of change between their current situation and the desired outcome. Feedback is crucial as it allows for adjustments and reinforces commitment.
  • Task Complexity: The complexity of a task can affect the strategies needed to achieve a goal. More complex tasks may require a variety of strategies and could influence the types of goal that are most effective.

How goals work: Locke’s 14 key findings on goal setting (1996)

Locke’s research on goal setting has led to 14 key findings that are instrumental in understanding how goals influence achievement:

1. Goal difficulty and performance

The more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement.

Achieving difficult goals leads to higher levels of performance. The research finds that effort, persistence, and focus improve as goal difficulty increases, provided that the individual has the necessary commitment, knowledge, and abilities. This principle underlines the motivational power of challenging objectives.

2. Specificity of goals

The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated.

Specific goals help in regulating performance more effectively than vague or general goals. By setting clear, quantifiable targets, individuals can measure their progress more accurately, which in turn, helps in maintaining motivation and improving performance outcomes. This is the root of the SMART goal framework.

Specificity may not always be desirable, such as in some creative tasks, but it has clear effects on goal-directed behaviour

3. Interplay between specificity and difficulty

Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to the highest performance.

The combination of setting goals that are both specific and challenging is most effective in enhancing performance. This approach ensures clarity in objectives while pushing individuals to extend their limits, fostering higher achievement.

This is in contrast to vague goals like “do your best,” which do not lead to optimal performance because they are compatible with a range of outcomes, including suboptimal ones.

4. Importance of goal commitment

Commitment to goals is most critical when goals are specific and difficult.

The level of commitment to a goal plays a critical role in determining success. For easy or vague goals, commitment is easier to achieve because they do not require much dedication. However, for specific and challenging goals, higher commitment correlates with better performance.

Therefore, high commitment, influenced by the perceived importance and attainability of the goal, ensures sustained effort towards achieving the set objectives.

5. Factors influencing high commitment

High commitment to goals is attained when (a) the individual is convinced that the goal is important; and (b) the individual is convinced that the goal is attainable (or that, at least, progress can be made toward it).

High commitment to goals is more likely when individuals believe the goals are important and achievable. This belief is influenced by personal values and the perceived difficulty of the goals, emphasising the need for setting realistic yet challenging targets.

In work settings good leadership and worker participation in setting goals can lead to higher commitment.

6. Role of self-efficacy

In addition to having a direct effect on performance, self-efficacy influences: (a) the difficulty level of the goal chosen or accepted, (b) commitment to goals, (c) the response to negative feedback or failure, and (d) the choice of task strategies.

Self-efficacy – the idea of feeling confident in completing specific tasks (Bandura 1986) – significantly impacts goal setting and performance. A strong belief in one’s abilities enhances commitment to challenging goals, influences the setting of higher goals, and improves persistence and strategy in the face of difficulties.

7. Feedback’s role in goal setting

Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal.”

Providing feedback on progress towards goals is essential for effective goal setting. Feedback is a moderator of the goal-performance relationship. It helps in adjusting efforts and strategies in the light of the information received, making it a crucial component of goal pursuit.

8. Influence of knowledge of results

Goal setting (along with self-efficacy) mediates the effect of knowledge of past performance on subsequent performance.

Understanding past performance influences future goal setting and performance through mechanisms such as self-efficacy and motivation. This knowledge helps in setting more appropriate goals and adopting effective strategies for achievement.

Thus, goals and self-efficacy can help individuals interpret and respond to feedback effectively, especially when feedback is negative.

9. Mechanisms through which goals affect performance

Goals affect performance by affecting the direction of action, the degree of effort exerted, and the persistence of action over time.

Goals improve performance by focusing attention, motivating effort, increasing persistence, driving the development of effective strategies. Difficult goals typically lead to more effort and persistence over time, which is why difficult goals lead to higher performance than easy goals. This is the reason why you will often be told to ‘aim high’.

This demonstrate the critical role of goal attributes in achieving desired outcomes in that goals can guide behaviour, motivate effort, and sustain engagement with tasks.

10. Goals stimulate planning

(a) Goals stimulate planning in general. Often the planning quality is higher than that which occurs without goals. (b) When people possess task or goal-relevant plans as a result of experience or training, they activate them virtually automatically when confronted with a performance goal. (c) Newly learned plans or strategies are most likely to be utilised under the stimulus of a specific, difficult goal.

Setting performance goals encourages the development and utilisation of plans that are of higher quality and more relevant to the task. This planning process is vital for achieving complex objectives and shows that goals can serve as a catalyst for developing effective strategies to achieve desired outcomes.

However, complex goals require new strategies, which are not always easy for people to develop if they lack training and experience.

11. Effectiveness of strategies in complex tasks

When people strive for goals on complex tasks, they are least effective in discovering suitable task strategies if: (a) they have no prior experience or training on the task; (b) there is high pressure to perform well; and (c) there is high time pressure (to perform well immediately).

For complex tasks, the effectiveness of striving for goals can be limited by factors such as lack of experience, high pressure, and time constraints. This shows that selecting and implementing the right strategy is much harder under these conditions and highlights the importance of preparation and the potential negative effects of excessive pressure.

12. Goals as mediate the effects of personalities and incentives on performance

Goals (including goal commitment), in combination with self-efficacy, mediate or partially mediate the effects of several personality traits and incentives on performance.

Goals and self-efficacy mediate the impact of personality traits and incentives on performance by serving as immediate regulators of action. Goals and self-efficacy reflect the individuals personal assessment of the specific situation. This means that goals and self-efficacy are the primary drivers of action and demonstrates the central role of goal setting in motivational processes.

13. Self-Regulation through goal setting

Goal-setting and goal-related mechanisms can be trained and/or adopted in the absence of training for the purpose of self-regulation.

Individuals can learn to use goal-setting techniques as tools for self-regulation, enhancing their ability to manage and improve their performance autonomously. Importantly, goal-oriented behaviours can be developed through deliberate practice and learning.

14. Goals and standards of satisfaction

Goals serve as standards of self-satisfaction, with harder goals demanding higher accomplishment in order to attain self-satisfaction than easy goals

Setting harder goals creates higher standards for satisfaction, requiring higher accomplishment for self-satisfaction than easier goals. Therefore, the level of goal difficulty sets the benchmark for what individuals consider a satisfactory performance.

This relationship between goal difficulty and satisfaction levels emphasises the motivational benefits of challenging goals.

How goals work: Goal dilemmas

As we have seen, setting challenging goals can lead to higher performance but potentially lower satisfaction compared to easier goals, presenting a dilemma between happiness and productivity.

The balance involves recognising the benefits and drawbacks of setting goals that are too low or too high.

Crucially, goals should align with personal desires and realistic capabilities. It is advisable to approach ambitious goals gradually, setting smaller, achievable objectives along the way.

Acknowledging partial successes and viewing failures as learning opportunities, while selecting roles that match one’s aspirations and skills, can help navigate this balance effectively.


Achieving goals for self-improvement or personal and professional success is a dynamic process that involves setting specific and challenging objectives, committing to them, and being receptive to feedback. Understanding how goals work can help you perfect this for yourself.

By understanding and applying these principles, you can enhance your ability to set and achieve meaningful goals, ultimately leading to greater personal growth and success.


Austin, J. T., & Vancouver, J. B. (1996). Goal constructs in psychology: Structure, process, and contentPsychological bulletin120(3), 338.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive view. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal settingApplied and preventive psychology5(2), 117-124.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist57(9), 705.

Latham, G. P., Locke, E. A., & Fassina, N. E. (2002). The high performance cycle: Standing the test of time. Psychological management of individual performance5(6), 201-28.

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