It’s something we all know we should do—setting goals—and yet have probably felt frustration in lack of progress. The following article summarizes the latest and most useful tips, particularly from positive psychology, for setting and achieving goals, followed by a short discussion of potential negative effects of improper use of goals in life and work.
Here’s our BLUF…Bottom Line Up Front:
Principles for Setting Goals
- Make Goals That Are Within Your Control and Power to Achieve.
- Make Goals Simple. Limit to Small, Plannable, Reachable Goals.
- Split into Stretch Goals and Supporting Goals.
- Follow the SMART Action Plan. Identify Objective, Actions, Supporting Resources, Feedback Methods, Timeframe.
- Structure Goals So You Believe You Have a 70% Likelihood of Success.
- Design Goals with Some Progress Already Accomplished.
- Establish Milestones, Especially at 70%.
Principles for Achieving the Goals We Set
- Visualize Success. Expand Your Perception of the Attainability of the Goal.
- Make a Plan with Bright Lines.
- Make a Public Commitment with Someone to Hold You Accountable.
- Establish Incremental Awards (or Punishments).
- Share Your Goals in Social Networks.
- Get Feedback. Visually Display Progress.
- Get Grit—Stick to the Goal with Effort.
- Focus on the Goal, Not the Competition or Obstacles.
- Recall Past Successes and Effort Spent.
- Prioritize Your Use of Mental Energy.
Some Cautions About Goals
- Make Them Relevant.
- Beware of These Possible Harmful Side Effects
- Goldilocks Principle – Not Too Hard, Not Too Easy.
1. Principles for Setting Goals
Make Goals That Are Within Your Control and Power to Achieve.
One of the most important principles in setting an appropriate goal is to ensure that you have control over the required inputs to achieving that goal, and have power to make changes. For example, while making a goal to get promoted to head of your department may seem admirable and appropriately ambitious, you don’t control promotions. Instead, your goal could be to obtain an additional certification or skill that increases your chances of promotion. We need both an acute awareness of the things that we can control and influence, as well as an “ownership” attitude that proactively takes responsibility for our own actions. We can imagine ourselves living in a series of spheres, with the first sphere being that which we control—things we can learn for ourselves, do for ourselves. The next sphere is that which we can influence—convincing others to provide resources or assistance that we can’t provide alone. Finally, there are many things that might make us feel stressed or concern us, but into which we have very little or no input. The closer your goal is to the inner circle, the more chance of success you will have in achieving it.
According to psychologist Shawn Achor, “the most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.”[i] People with this “internal locus of control” don’t blame circumstances or environment when things don’t go their way—but they are also aware of things that they can effect and things that they cannot, and look to expand their area of control. It can be stressful on us when we feel we don’t have control, when we feel our circle of influence is too small to make a difference. Scientific studies have shown, however, that articulating a stressful situation and emotions actually diminish the negative effects of the stress, and provide our first step to taking control. Dr. Achor suggests writing down a list of stresses, challenges, and goals and separating them into categories of those over which we have control and those we don’t. Then, we take an item over which we have control, and develop that as our goal. Proper goals should be ones which we can control the outcome.
Make Goals Simple. Limit to Small, Plannable, Reachable Goals.
In The Mask of Zorro, the older Zorro, played by Anthony Hopkins, takes in the young and hot-headed Alejandro, played by Antonio Banderas, as his replacement. Alejandro is obsessed with revenge against the evil Captain. But the goal of revenge is too vague to be useful, and Alejandro is full of enthusiasm but lacking in skills to achieve his goal; when Hopkins’ character asks the fiery young man if he knows how to use his sword, he replies, “Yeah, the pointy end goes into the other man.” The wise older Zorro breaks down Alejandro’s ambitions into small, plannable, short-term goals by bringing him into the training circle, or “Master’s Wheel.” Training Alejandro with a combination of strict adherence to technique, but with frequent positive encouragement, elder Zorro helps the young man achieve control over himself first, and then to expand his sphere of control. He concentrates on small areas where he knows Alejandro can have an effect. Enjoy the 3-minute clip of young Zorro learning to control his development through small, plannable, reachable goals below:
Split into Stretch Goals and Supporting Goals
General Electric (GE) pioneered a system of goal-setting in the 1940s, according to author Charles Duhigg, in which employees developed their own specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals which became a contract for performance. In most cases, this dramatically improved work performance. But some units were setting goals that were trivial or short-sighted; they met the SMART criteria (discussed below), but weren’t contributing to the bottom line of the company. Consequently, GE developed the concept of brainstorming “stretch goals,” in which the emphasis wasn’t on being easily achievable, but on inspiring innovation and meaning. Stretch goals can be nested in a hierarchy of ambitions, as well. Our highest level stretch goal would be our life purpose statement. From that broad objective, we can narrow down the focus, step-by-step, to goals that we manage in our day-to-day actions.
The specific goals of the SMART system needed to be linked to longer-term, overarching purpose and principles. Success comes when we attach those specific goals that occupy our daily lives to our life purposes and principles (which I have discussed in previous articles).
Follow the SMART Action Plan. Identify Objective, Actions, Supporting Resources, Feedback Methods, Timeframe.
The most popular technique for stating goals is the “SMART” method. Sources vary on the exact terminology, but I find the most useful to be the following principles:
Specific — Make it simple and concrete. Avoid vague statements like “Do my best.”
Measurable — Describe in measurable terms, such as quantities or objective assessment of quality, what success looks like.
Achievable — Ensure you have control and the resources (people, materials, time) to accomplish the goal.
Relevant — Align with your life purpose and principles. Assess whether the resources spent on this goal will provide the best return on investment compared to other alternative goals.
Time-bound — Goals are dreams with a deadline. Establish intermediate mile markers as well as “completed by” date.
In order to make a goal statement more specific, include the elements of “Why, Who, What, How, Where, When.”
- Why. Why is the goal relevant? How does it relate to your basic principles or goals in your career and life? You can keep digging to several levels of “why.” For example, ask yourself, “why is this objective important to me?” When you answer “This is important to me because [1st reason]” then ask yourself again why that 1st reason in important to you, and keep repeating for several iterations. The fundamental “Why” of our actions is the single most important motivating factor in getting us to complete a goal.
- Who. Is this just for yourself, or does it involve others? If it involves others, how much control or influence do you have on the behavior of the others in order to successfully achieve the objective? What communication or persuasive skills do you need? What incentives can you offer to others to cooperate?
- What. Use a verb or action in the objective statement, i.e. increase, improve, reduce, etc.
- How. What are the means, tools, methods that you will use? For example, use a phrase like “I will increase X by following [how]”
- Where. Just in your work space, or other places? Limiting the scope helps make it more achievable.
- When. Set the timeframe, in multiple increments to succeed in stages if necessary.
As for improving the “Measurable” element, try including the measurement in your goal statement, i.e. “increase by x%,” “Achieve 100% ….” Also, identify the current gaps. For example, if you’re looking for 100% compliance with something, what is the current rate of compliance? If you want to improve communication skills as a goal, what are your current skill levels?
The illustration below gives an example of linking stretch goals to more narrowly-focused supporting goals.
Once we have the goal statement in place, following the guidance of the SMART method, we can build an action plan to achieve our goals. The action plan gets to the “nitty gritty” of how we will set ourselves up for success. Here’s how to do it:
- Make a table with five columns, labeled Objective, Actions, Support/Resources, Progress/Feedback, Time Frame.
- In the Objective column, state your stretch goal and then the specific, supporting goal.
- In the Actions column, commit to specific behaviors that will move you toward your goal.
- In the Support/Resources column, brainstorm on all the tools that are available to assist you, including people, information, technology, or other resources.
- In the Progress/Feedback column, write down measures of success or other sources that can assess your progress toward the goal. You might include a visual aid (discussed below) to record your progress.
- In the Time Frame column, state your deadline, as well as appropriate milestones with an associated date.
Please see the example below of an action plan.
Structure Goals So You Believe You Have a 70% Likelihood of Success.
Research in positive psychology has shown that we have a much higher rate of success when we believe that we can succeed. Our goals should be challenging, but not too high above our expected capabilities.
Design Goals with Some Progress Already Accomplished.
In the 1920s, behavioral scientist Clark Hull found an interesting phenomenon in rats that were trained to make it through a maze to receive a reward—the closer they got to the reward, the faster they ran! It turns out that humans follow this behavior as well, but with the twist that it is our perception of closeness to a target that boosts us up to the Super Mario mode–the closer we perceive that we get to a target, the more energy we have and the faster we strive toward that goal.
We can help boost our success by designing our goals with some progress already accomplished, so that we psychologically feel that we are closer to the goal. In 2006, the business school at Columbia University performed an experiment related to Hull’s finding that we move faster when we approach a goal. Experimenters gave two sets of subjects “customer loyalty” cards for a coffee shop. They both had the same conditions—buy 10 cups of coffee and get a reward of a free coffee—but they were presented in different ways. The first group had a card with 10 empty circles, which would get stamped one-by-one as they bought coffee to reach their reward. The second group received a card with 12 circles, but two of them were already stamped! At the very beginning, the first group had the perception that they were merely 0 percent along the way to their goal, but the second group was already 1/6th of the way there. This subtle psychological trick indeed had a significant effect on how fast the second group bought coffee and sped toward the reward of a free cup.[ii]
Besides learning how to get customers to spend money faster, the lesson for us is that we can help ourselves feel closer to our goals by designing a head start into them. Rarely do we start toward a goal from scratch—we have our wealth of experience and knowledge that can be applied to a specific goal. For example, if you’re looking to increase revenue in a certain area as the goal, include the revenue already made so that the goal doesn’t look so daunting.
Establish Milestones, Especially at 70%.
Just like the rats in Dr. Hull’s maze, athletes experience the phenomenon of gaining energy and speed as they near the end of a race. Some marathoners and triathletes call the place in a course where the contestant first sees the finish line the “X-spot,” where many will experience a rush of chemicals that pushes them swiftly toward the goal. (In fact, professional marathon events will set up emergency crews at this spot, as the hormone high can overwhelm some contestants, resulting in a higher incidence of heart attacks at this point.)
We can create our own “X-spots” when we set up goals by establishing milestones of “finish lines” that boost our energy as we approach them. We can plan on making small celebrations of hitting those milestones to highlight our progress. Positive psychology research has identified the 70% marker toward a goal as particularly significant. By the time we reach 70% of our goal, we are more apt to feel we can succeed the whole way. Having invested and accomplished so much to that point, the remaining 30% can seem more easily doable. When filling out a SMART Action Plan, highlight the 70% point of progress in the goal’s timeline.
2. Principles for Achieving the Goals We Set
When a pilot is flying up to a tanker airplane to refuel, her brain is constantly calculating several parameters. With the goal of getting the nozzle of the “boom,” the solid tube through which the jet fuel will flow, into the receptacle on the receiver’s aircraft, at speeds hundreds of kilometers per hour, the brain is constantly assessing its perception of the distance to target, the size of target and probability of hitting it, and energy required to get there. After we’ve established our SMART goals and action plan, we go through the same constant assessment as we approach the goal. Adjusting our perception of any of these three factors can increase our probability of success. The principles below show how we can adjust perceptions and increase our likelihood of attaining our goal.
Visualize Success. Expand Your Perception of the Attainability of the Goal.
The first critical step to successfully accomplishing our goals is to draw a complete mental picture of what achieving the objective looks like. Scientific research has shown that when we envision success, we increase the chances of it becoming a self-fulfilling reality. One fascinating experiment that illustrates this principle begins with this visual illusion, called an Ebbinghaus illusion. Take a look at the figure and say (honestly!) which center circle looks larger.
You can probably guess from the discussion that the two center circles are the same size…but the one surrounded by smaller circles (on the right) looks larger. How does this affect our reality? Experimenters had volunteer subjects attempt to putt golf balls from 2 meters away as close to the center hole as possible, just as they would putt into the hole on a golfing green. Remarkably, when putting toward the hole that they perceived to be larger, on the right, their putts were significantly closer to the hole.
Visualization of success has long been used by top-level athletes. Olympic athletes, particularly ones doing routines such as gymnastics or ski jumping, will mentally go through their movements, with strict attention to every detail. The more realistic they can make the simulations, including sounds, touch, temperature…every possible sensory input… the more effective the visualizations. Aerial ski jumper Emily Cook describes her visualization process in the video below:
In the same way, we can visualize the state of success in our goal, with as much detail as we can imagine. This serves as a powerful motivator to make our target look larger (closer to accomplishment) and more obtainable.
Make a Plan with Bright Lines.
Scientist and authors Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, in their work Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals, provide a seven-step path to problem-solving and goal accomplishment. They start with setting a goal, followed by the second step to make a simple plan with “bright lines.” The lines are easy to identify boundaries, either for things you want to avoid, or minimum behaviors you want to accomplish. For example, if trying to reduce a behavior such as alcohol consumption, one can set a specific maximum number of glasses per day. For a positive action, such as getting in better physical shape, one can count minimum trips to gym, kilometers run per week, or something else easy to keep track and display.
Make a Public Commitment with Someone to Hold You Accountable.
The third step recommended by Service and Gallagher is to find a commitment referee–someone to hold you to the commitment. Avoid family members or easy going friends who will let you off the hook. A colleague at work, or a friend in a social or religious circle, are good candidates as accountability partners.
Establish Incremental Awards (or Punishments).
After establishing the “X-spot” mile markers in our goal statement, we can give ourselves incentives at those spots. These can be small rewards for incremental victories, such as treating our self to a lunch or a favorite recreation activity. Alternatively, we can establish “punishments” as a deterrent for failing to meet an incremental goal or violating a behavior standard we are trying to establish. This could include denying oneself a recreational activity, or making a lighthearted agreement with the referee, as Service and Gallagher did—wearing a rival’s team jersey for missing a gym attendance goal.
Share Your Goals in Social Networks.
Intentionally subjecting ourselves to positive social pressure can be very effective in helping stick to pursuing a goal. Personal interaction will have the strongest effect, but the widespread use of digital social networks easily allows a public commitment to a goal.
Get Feedback. Visually Display Progress.
The sixth step in Service and Gallagher’s method, confirmed by several studies, is to get constant feedback, put into visual form as much as possible. Visual displays that remind us of the relationship of the support goal to the stretch goal, including our general life purpose, are particularly effective.
Get Grit—Stick to the Goal with Effort.
Service and Gallagher’s final step is to practice with focus and persistent effort—to strengthen our “grit” factor. People who have learned to view their work as a calling, by connecting their work to a larger, meaningful purpose, are more able to stick with pursuing a goal in the face of challenges or boredom.
Focus on the Goal, Not the Competition or Obstacles.
An interesting study of students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is commonly used across the United States for assessing college entrance eligibility, showed that the more students in the room taking the test, the lower the average test score. It turns out our perception of the number of people competing with us affects our performance in reaching a goal. If we can mitigate the feeling that we have numerous competitors, we can improve our engagement and concentration.
In preparation for becoming a military attaché, I took a defensive driving course. The instructor pointed out the strange phenomenon that drivers trying to control their vehicle in a crash situation often end up steering right into an obstacle, even if it’s surrounded by clear space. This is because our hands tend to follow where our eyes are focused…and the easiest thing to focus on is an obstacle, not a clear escape space. The course taught us to steer for the safe open space—to fix our eyes there instead of on the obstacle.
Likewise, we shouldn’t focus on our competition or obstacles. We can work on perceiving fewer competitors, avoiding situations that make us feel like there are too many other competitors. For example, if you’re an author, don’t spend a lot of time in a bookstore that reminds you that there are lots of books already! Focus on success more than failure.
Recall Past Successes and Effort Spent.
Especially when we’re faced with disagreeable tasks, and it’s hard to find the motivation to reach a goal, it can be just as effective looking back at accomplishments as visualizing success. Reminding ourselves of the time and effort already spent, and previous accomplishments in similar goals, escalates our commitment.
Prioritize Your Use of Mental Energy.
Cognitive functions are like muscles, and mental energy put into one activity will make us more mentally tired when we try to do the next. We can conserve our mental energy for use in attaining goals by prioritizing mental tasks, eliminating as many conscious decisions as possible by establishing a regular routine (time to get up, menu items, when you take a coffee break, etc.). Additionally, we can decrease our focus on things that we can’t control, and worries about obstacles, which drains our mental energy.
3. Some Cautions About Goals
Goal-setting is not a panacea that cures all of our ills, or makes us super producers. One set of authors, in a paper titled “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” argues that “goal setting has powerful and predictable side effects. Rather than being offered as an “over-the-counter” salve for boosting performance, goal setting should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored.”[iii] Below are important caveats to keep in mind when setting and striving for goals.
Make Them Relevant.
As the GE case showed, workers may follow all the SMART goal criteria, but make trivial or meaningless goals. Charles Duhigg notes that “Experiments have shown that people with SMART goals are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set.”[iv] The wrong emphasis in goal-setting can cause people to focus on short-term gains only, without consideration for strategic development, either personally or on an organizational level. This is why associating goals with stretch goals and larger purposes and principles is essential.
Beware of These Possible Harmful Side Effects.
- Degraded employee performance due to stress
- Focus shifted away from important but non-specified goals
- Risky and unethical behaviors
- Inhibited learning
- Increased unhealthy competition and eroded teamwork
- decreased intrinsic motivation
If attaining goals is emphasized in such a way as to not allow for failure, employees can feel excessive amounts of stress. Failure to reach a goal could seriously depress morale.
Pressure to achieve goals can influence some employees to take unreasonable risks. In a negotiation, for example, a negotiator with specific goals might take excessive risks and be less willing to compromise in potential win-win situations. Or, if the goals are set too low, the negotiator might leave potential value unexploited if the goal is already obtained. Pressure of performance goals can also provide incentive for some to engage in unethical practices. In the explosion and ensuing massive oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon incident, executives were pressured to meet performance goals that resulted in decisions to overlook questionable results of safety tests. An organizational culture that valued long-term safety and performance over short-term pressures may have averted that disaster.
Excessive emphasis on performance goals can divert one’s attention away from personal development and learning—when the emphasis is on hitting the quarterly numbers, employees may not feel they have time to devote to self-improvement. Choosing “learning goals” over “performance goals” might be more helpful to alleviate some of the negative side effects.
Goals that pit employees in competition with each other can seriously erode teamwork. Tailoring goals to individuals in an equitable way is challenging, but essential. In many cases, developing a team goal may be more effective.
Some studies have shown that offering external rewards, such as discussed above, can “crowd out” intrinsic motivation. Rewards or punishments are best created by the goal maker, and used carefully.
Some examples of inappropriate goal practices include: focusing on revenue rather than profit; making activities a “numbers game,” such as papers published by a professor in a tenure track; calculating profits without ethical considerations; setting short term revenue goals at the expense of research and development or other strategic considerations; making goals a “ceiling” that encourages quitting once they are reached.
In order to avoid some of these pitfalls, we might follow GE executive Steve Kerr’s advice to “…avoid setting goals that increase employee stress, to refrain from punishing failure, and to provide the tools employees need to meet ambitious goals.”[v]
Goldilocks Principle – Not Too Hard, Not Too Easy.
Goals should be set in a sweet spot between so easy that we lose interest and so hard that we get discouraged and give up. In fact, setting a goal so high that we fail to make it can crush the spirit and discourage future improvement attempts. Research has repeatedly shown, however, that the sweet spot of goal-setting can be very effective. “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance…specific, high goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to ‘do one’s best.’”[vi]
We all want to improve ourselves, to make our dreams turn into reality, to realize our highest potential. Creating a SMART Action Plan, linked with our life purpose and principles, will increase our success and satisfaction.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.
For Further Reading
Service, Owain and Rory Gallagher. Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals. London: Michael O’Mara Books. 2017.
Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House. 2016.
Achor, Shawn. The . New York: Crown Business. 2010. Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work
Achor, Shawn. Before New York: Crown Business. 2013. : The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading , and Sustaining Positive Change.
Ordóñez, Lisa D., Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman. “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Harvard Working Paper. 2009. Available at http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/09-083.pdf
[i] Shawn Achor, The Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, New York: Crown Business, 2010, p. 130.
[ii] Shawn Achor, Before : The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading , and Sustaining Positive Change, New York: Crown Business, 2013, pp. 116-118.
[iii] Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Harvard Working Paper, 2009, p. 3.
[iv] Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, New York: Random House, 2016, p. 130.
[v] Ordóñez et al, p. 16.
[vi] Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.