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 and businesses to utilize their knowledge, skills and resources effectively.(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).


When it comes to the corporate sector, most companies typically use tracking tools such as OKR to track and set challenging, ambitious goals with measurable outcomes. OKRs are used to track progress, create alignment, and encourage engagement around measurable goals. Companies that use OKR besides Google include Spotify, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Airbnb. The system, however, is not limited to digital businesses. OKR is also used by Walmart, Target, The Guardian, Dun & Bradstreet, and ING Bank. In a nutshell, okr tracking is critical for the goal accomplishment of businesses.

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.


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