Goal Setting According to Science

Goal Setting According to Science

Goals affect performance in four ways: (1) Goals focus attention to goal-related activities. (2) Goals increase effort. (3) Goals increase persistence. (4) Finally, goals encourage individuals to utilize their knowledge and skills (Locke & Latham 2002). Here’s how you effectively set and achieve your goals.

goal setting

The goals you set should have the following characteristics:

  • Specific: Specific goals (run 5 miles a day) have consistently been shown to lead to greater performance than vague (“do your best”) goals. (Locke & Latham 2002).
  • Difficult: There is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance. Performance does level off or decline at high difficulty levels if the goal is seen as unattainable. (Locke & Latham 2002). So choose goals that are difficult, yet attainable.
  • Approach: An approach goal is an end state that you are striving to attain (lose weight), while an avoidance goal is an end state that you are striving to avoid (don’t gain weight). The effect of avoidance goals are almost universally negative. Avoidance goals are associated with high anxiety, disorganization, avoidance of help, self-handicapping, low-interest and low achievement (Senko & Hulleman 2011). Approach goals, in contrast, are associated with positive outcomes.
  • Deadlines: Another study found that people are willing to set costly deadlines on themselves and that these self-imposed deadlines are effective in increasing motivation. The researchers further found that externally imposed deadlines were more motivating than self-imposed deadlines (Ariely & Wertenbroch 2002).

 

goal commitment

Next, you have to commit to your goals. Goal commitment has been shown to improve performance (Sheeran 2002). Commitment is especially important when it comes to difficult, long-term goals. Commitment can be increased in one of two ways: (1) Increase the perceived importance of the goal and (2) increase your self-efficacy (belief that you can achieve the goal) (Klein & Alge 1999).

  • goal setting chartImportance: Not surprisingly, how important you view a goal the greater your commitment level and your subsequent results (Hollenbeck & Williams 1987). Importance can be increased in a number of ways including: by focusing on why the goal matters, by tying the goal to another goal, or by telling other people about your goal (but don’t let them praise you for your goal until you have achieved it).
  • Self-efficacy: Self efficacy is the belief that you can achieve a given outcome (it’s not the belief that you are a great tennis player, but that you can become one). High self efficacy is associated with high performance (Zimmerman & Bandura 1992). The best way to increase self efficacy appears to achievement itself (Diseth 2011). So, break down a large goal into smaller, achievable segments to improve your self-efficacy.

 

goal achievement

On to the action. Where’s the goals you set above are outcomes you want to achieve, this section details the actions that will help you get there.

  • Get started: You are much more likely to finish a task once you have started. One study interrupted people while they were working on a puzzle, despite being told the study was over, almost 90% returned to work on the puzzle (McGraw & Fiala 1982).
  • Focus on the process: In another study, participants who focused on the goal of losing weight spent less time running than those who focused on the process goal of running. (34 minutes versus 43 minutes) (Fishbach & Choi 2012). Process goals keep you focused on the actual steps necessary to achieve your longer-term goals.
  • Focus on one task at a time: Your brains can only really focus on thing at a time. When we think we’re multitasking, our brains are actually rapidly switching attention back and forth between the tasks. And there’s a cost to the rapid switching. One study found that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.
  • Intrinsic: Intrinsic goals are those goals that you enjoy doing for their own sake. Intrinsic goals have been shown to lead to greater engagement, more persistence and greater results (Vansteenkiste & Lens 2006). So, make your process goals intrinsic when possible. So, if you enjoy playing basketball, but not running, then play basketball.
  • If-then plans: If-then plans describe in advance how you will respond to a given obstacle to the achievement of your goal (if it rains, I will play tennis indoors). If-then plans have been shown to be very effective, especially on difficult tasks. (Gollwitzer & Sheeran 2006).
  • Rewards: Praise has been shown to improve performance (Sugawara & Tanaka 2012). However, feedback (positive or negative) while performing complex tasks harms performance (Osman 2012), presumably by distracting you from the task. Material rewards have been found to improve performance on simple, route tasks. However, material rewards reduce performance on difficult tasks and have been shown to reduce intrinsic motivation. (Deci & Koestner 1999). So be careful with rewards.
  • Social support: Social support increases goal achievement. For example, of those who embarked on a weight loss program alone, 76% of individuals completed the program and 24% maintained the weight loss for 6 months. Of those who embarked on the weight loss program with social support, 95% completed the program and 66% maintained the weight loss for 6 months (Wing & Jeffery 1999).

 

goal banners (1)

So set some specific, difficult, approach goals with deadlines. Afterwords, make an effort to become more committed to your goals. Finally, use some of the strategies listed above to make sure that your goals become reality.


citations

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Diseth, Age. Self-Efficacy, Goal Orientations and Learning Strategies as Mediators Between Preceding and Subsequent Academic Achievement. Learning and Individual Differences. Vol 21(2), Apr 2011, 191-195.

Fishbach, Ayelet; Choi, Jinhee. When Thinking About Goals Undermines Goal Pursuit. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Vol 118(2), Jul 2010, 99-107.

Gollwitzer, Peter M.; Sheeran, Paschal. Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of Effects and Processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol 28, 2006, 69-119.

Harackiewicz, Judith M.; Barron, Kenneth E.; Carter, Suzanne M.; Lehto, Alan T.; Elliot, Andrew J. Predictors and Consequences of Achievement Goals in the College Classroom: Maintaining Interest and Making the Grade. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 73(6), Dec 1997, 1284-1295.

Hollenbeck, John R.; Williams, Charles R. Goal importance, self-focus, and the goal-setting process. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 72(2), May 1987, 204-211.

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Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey. American Psychologist. Vol 57(9), Sept 2002, 705-717.

McGraw, Kenneth O.; Fiala, Jirina. Undermining the Zeigarnik effect: Another Hidden Cost of Reward. Journal of Personality. Vol 50(1), Mar 1982, 55-68.

Osman, Magda. The Role of Reward in Dynamic Decision Making. Frontiers in Neuroscience. Vol 6(35), Mar 2012, 1-12.

Seijts, Gerard H.; Latham, Gary P. The Effect of Commitment to a Learning Goal, Self-Efficacy, and the Interaction Between Learning Goal Difficulty and Commitment on Performance in a Business Simulation. Human Performance. Vol 24(3), 2011, 189-204.

Senko, Corwin; Hulleman, Chris S.; Harackiewcz, Judith M. Achievement Goal Theory at the Crossroads: Old Controversies, Current Challenges, and New Directions. Educational Psychologist. Vol 46(1), Jan 2011, 26-47.

Sheeran, Paschal. Intention-Behavior Relations: A Conception and Empirical Review. European Review of Social Psychology. Vol 12(1), 2002, 1-36.

Sugawara SK, Tanaka S, Okazaki S, Watanabe K, Sadato N (2012) Social Rewards Enhance Offline Improvements in Motor Skill. PLoS ONE 7(11): e48174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048174

Vansteenkiste, Maarten; Lens, Willy; Deci, Edward L. Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation. Educational Psychologist. Vol 41(1), 2006, 19-31.

Wing, Rena R.; Jeffery, Robert W. Benefits of Recruiting Participants With Friends and Increasing Social Support For Weight Loss and Maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 67(1), Feb 1999, 132-138.

Zimmerman, Barry J.; Bandura, Albert; Martinez-Ponz, Manuel. Self-Motivation for Academic Attainment: The Role of Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Personal Goal Setting. American Educational Research Journal. Vol 29(3), Sept 1992, 663-676.
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