Setting goals is part of daily life. You might set health goals (i.e. “I will go to the gym later”), work goals (i.e. “I will be promoted by this time next year”), or personal goals (i.e. “I will travel more”).
Despite daily practice with small goals and regular practice with larger goals, we don't always naturally set goals in ways we are most likely to achieve. Research about setting goals teaches us that all goals do not carry the same impact on our motivation and performance.
Pulling from decades of research on the difference between setting goals that help us succeed and setting goals that fade into unfulfilled wishes, here are six tips on how to set impactful goals.
Vague goals (i.e. “I will get a lot of work done today” or “I will lose weight”) do not have the same action-directing impact as specific goals (i.e. “I will accomplish x, y, and z at work today” or “I will lose 5lbs in one month”). The ambiguity in vague goals make them elusive to attain and easy to set aside.
Specific goals, on the other hand, create clarity. Clarity helps us focus attention and energy. Setting goals that are specific makes our goals harder to ignore and makes us more likely to accomplish the goall1,.
Difficult goals lead to higher achievement. Operating with a challenging goal in mind, we tend to give greater effort to achieve the goal. We also persist more strongly in the face of setbacks for challenging vs easy goalsl1,2,3.
The sweet spot for setting goals? Make your goals both specific and challenging - performance peaks under these conditions. Don’t just shoot for the stars – shoot for a specific star!
A major factor that determines goal setting impact is real commitment to achieving the goal1,2,3. Test your commitment. First, do you believe it matters to achieve the goal? Second, do you believe you can successfully meet the goal? To really commit to a goal, you must be able to answer yes to both of these questions.
If you’re on the edge, think about why reaching the goal is important and what could happen to increase your sense that it matters. Then think about what you’ll need to succeed and what would build your confidence that you can win it.
The way you think about a goal can make all the difference in whether or not you achieve it. If you frame a goal as carrying a threat (e.g., if I don’t achieve this, I’ll experience harm or be viewed badly), you actively reduce the likelihood of mustering up the strong performance needed to achieve your goal.
However, if you frame a goal as an opportunity to learn and grow and live your values, you proactively increase the likelihood that you will perform at levels that will meet or beat your goal3.
At work, goals come from a lot of places -- your manager, team members, or the responsibilities of the job itself can dictate your goals. Take an active role in absorbing and framing these incoming goals. Connect work goals to your personal growth and values.
Make sure you originate goals that make sense to you in your role and organization. Apply your unique perspective to the goals you strive for to create a more meaningful work experience and build stronger goal commitment1,2.
When diving into a new and complex task, the most beneficial initial goal may not be to achieve high outcomes. Rather, the best goal may be to learn: to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully accomplish the work. Research shows that when diving into new work, people who focus too much on outcomes experience “tunnel vision,” preventing true task understanding and subsequently leading to poorer overall performance3.