A Brief Guide to the Science of Goal-Setting

We all know about goals. Leaders set business targets. Supervisors and direct reports set performance goals. People, in general, set goals for their own development (e.g., weight loss). But there are good goals, and not-so-good goals. There are also good and bad ways of meeting them.

Luckily, there’s a science of goal-setting with 50 years of research. We know what works and what doesn’t.

We’ve distilled 15 science-based facts about goals that could help people and organizations to become more successful. Some of them may be intuitive. Yet, their deep impact only becomes apparent when we put them into action in our personal and professional lives (we see this a lot in coaching).

1. Goals are healthy

People that are goal-oriented, in general, tend to have better mental health. Setting goals, striving to meet them, and seeing progress towards goals are all linked to higher well-being.

2. Goals are motivating

If you have difficulty sticking to tasks and projects, or if you feel you’re going around in circles, setting goals can spur motivation, effort, and persistence.

3. Goals must be clear

Effective targets must be clear and specific, with no room for interpretation (i.e., objective). ‘Doing your best’ doesn’t cut it.

4. Goals must be measurable

Goals must be quantitative for tracking progress and knowing when you’ve crossed the finish line. Clear and measurable goals also translate to clear steps for meeting them. The development of this ‘path’ boosts confidence.

5. Goals must be challenging

You’ll be more successful in the long run by setting difficult rather than easy goals. The more challenging the goal, the more attention it will garner for meeting it. The stakes are much higher (think of John F. Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970). We also expend more effort and vigilance when we’re off-track in meeting difficult goals. If we don’t meet a difficult goal at first, we also learn how to deal with setbacks. And, even if we never meet that difficult goal, we usually reach a level of performance that would have been impossible, had an easier goal been set.

6. Goals must be realistic

Goals must to be difficult, but also attainable. People have difficulty getting motivated to meet near-impossible goals. You also need to take a realistic stock of your current knowledge, skills, and abilities to support meeting a goal. Repeated failures can have grave effects on later striving.

7. Goals must be accepted

Setting a goal is one thing. But how committed are you to achieving it? Be honest with yourself. Is it really important to you to meet some goal? If not, set different goals, or consider how meeting the goal will help you to get something else that you value (and connect the two in memory). Finally, sign a contract to meet your goals and share it with others (yes, this works!).

8. Goals must be self-set

One way to ensure that you’re committed to goals is to set them yourself, and ‘own’ them. We’re more likely to meet self-set goals than goals set for us by others. At the very least, we should participate in our own goal-setting (e.g., supervisors and direct reports collaboratively setting performance targets through management-by-objectives or MBO’s).

9. Goals must be authentic

We’re more likely to strive for, and meet goals that are closely aligned with ‘who we really are’, as people. That is, they should be clearly aligned with our personal values, motives, and purpose in life. As well, people that tend to chase goals that are misaligned with their true self are more likely to have mental health issues in the future.

10. Goals must be set for learning

Some people tend to set more goals for mastering a subject. Other people tend to set more goals for performing at some level, and rarely improving. Both are important. However, focusing too much on performance at the expense of learning is like putting the cart before the horse. People with a learning orientation end up with higher intrinsic motivation (“I enjoy this!”) and confidence (“I have the knowledge to succeed.”). The irony is that learning-oriented people often get the high performance that that alludes performance-oriented people.

11. Goals must have deadlines

When a goal has a clear deadline, we’re more able to work back from that date and find appropriate, time-sensitive strategies for meeting it. Deadlines breed a sense of urgency, as well as more motivation, effort, and persistence.

12. Goals must be linked to plans

If there is one, big, long-term goal, it must be translated to clear, smaller, short-term goals. We need to visualize the path, ahead of time, and anticipate and prepare for stumbling blocks. Meeting interim goals are also ‘small wins’ for confidence and motivation. Also, plenty of studies shows that simply visualizing the ‘big’ end goal, something that’s common in self-help books, doesn’t work (we’re looking at you, The Secret).

13. Goals must be linked to feedback

We need clear, frequent, and regular feedback on our progress towards goals. If it’s positive, it’s rewarding, and boosts our positive affect and confidence. If it’s negative, the ‘ouch’ factor leads to vigilance and problem-solving to get back on track. It also helps us to get better at dealing with negative feelings (i.e., emotional regulation).

14. Goals are easier for some people

Some people are just more naturally-inclined to set, strive for, and meet goals, including people high in conscientiousness, need for achievement (nAch), grit, and hope. The latter two can be developed, with hard work (although grit is receiving a bit of a beating in recent scientific studies).

15. Goals must sometimes be intrinsic

People who spend the bulk of their lives trying to meet extrinsic goals (i.e., financial success, social status) tend to have poorer mental health than people who concentrate more on intrinsic goals (e.g., enjoyment, personal growth, community contribution). One exception involves people who set extrinsic goals as ways of meeting intrinsic goals (e.g., earning money to ‘buy’ a meaningful holiday). This holds as long as the focus remains on the end, intrinsic goal.