“Every person’s life depends on the process of choosing goals to pursue; if you remain passive you are not going to thrive as a human being.”
— Dr. Edwin Locke
We all have things that we want to achieve in our lives. Whether it be with fitness, relationships, career, finances, or anything else in between, there is a constant desire for growth. That growth always starts with goal setting.
If you want to be successful, you need to learn how to properly set your goals. Your goals set the tone for all of your work, so you better be sure to set them right. Luckily, there is already a wealth of research available in the area of goal setting.
The most prominent study was one that looked at how proper goal setting impacted performance. Researchers from the University of Toronto found that setting clearly defined goals leads to better performance. The research culminated with a unifying theory that successful goal setting followed 5 key principles.
Commitment to a goal refers to the degree to which an individual is invested in the outcome. In other words, how badly do you want to achieve this goal?
Psychology research has shown that goal performance is best when people are committed to it, even when faced with obstacles. People who are intensely committed to their goals are more motivated and will work harder because their desire to achieve the goal far outweighs the pain of going through the obstacles.
That same research also found that we tend to match our performance with how much we are committed to our goal. We will work both harder and smarter when working on goals that we desire more to achieve. The brain and body get kicked into overdrive because we want the goal so badly. Your motivation and performance will always meet the level of your desire for the goal.
How to apply it
Set goals that you are sure you really want to achieve. If you only half want it, you’re only going to be half-committed and put in half the effort. But if you set goals that you really desire deep down, you’ll find a way to achieve them. Hence why “find your purpose” is common advice.
Goals must also be specific to have a better chance of achieving them. When goals are vague, the motivational value is limited. You don’t know exactly what the objective is, so it’s hard to commit to it. You won’t be motivated for something you don’t have a clear picture of.
On the other hand, when goals are made specific, you have a direct target. You know exactly what to be motivated for and what you will achieve should you continue to work hard and through the obstacles. You fully understand the tasks to be done to reach your goal. Once again, Psychology research has shown that the clarity and specificity of a goal were positively related to motivation and satisfaction when working towards it.
How to apply it
Set very precise goals that are fully defined. A great way of doing this is to make your goal quantifiable. For example, instead of “get rich” you can say “have a net worth of $5 Million 5 years from now.” Now you have a direct target. You know exactly how much money you need to make each year, month, week, and day if you are to hit your target on time.
Goals must strike a balance between being challenging and realistically attainable.
Challenging goals will improve performance. Your performance will increase because the reward for achieving the goal is far greater. You want the reward more, so you’re willing to invest more time and effort into getting it. Even if you don’t achieve your goal in the end, you’ve raised your performance to a level far higher than if you had set a lower level goal. It’s following the phrase “shoot for the moon and you’ll at least land somewhere among the stars.”
At the same time, goals should be realistically attainable. If your goal is too hard, then you may be unmotivated to even start because it looks so daunting. Even if you do start, your performance may drop after a short while as you realize how difficult the work really is. It feels a lot better to know your goal is realistically achievable so that you’re motivated to do it, while at the same time having a big enough reward to invoke a desire to achieve it.
How to apply it
Aim to create stretch goals that strike a perfect balance between challenging and achievable. For example, having a goal of making “$1 Billion by the end of the year” isn’t realistic for most people. On the other hand, increasing your yearly income by 5% doesn’t seem like a very sweet goal.
Setting a goal of doubling your salary by the end of this year is a nice sweet spot. It’ll take work for sure, but it’s not unrealistic. People do it all the time by switching jobs, working extra hours, or starting a side hustle. At the same time, doubling your income is sweet, and achieving that goal will feel fantastic.
4. Task Complexity
Goals should be designed with minimal complexity and minimal uncertainty.
Goals that are overly complex are demotivating. They’re confusing and require way too much thinking before anything actually gets done. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself by setting a goal that is so far away or requires you to accomplish a lot of complicated tasks. You’ll be worrying about it before you even start work.
Goals with minimal complexity are much better. Shorter time frames make more sense because it’s far easier to map out a plan and the required tasks for achievement. Minimizing the moving parts is also very helpful. If your goal involves many tasks or many other people, then it will be harder to control and to work on.
How to apply it
Use the divide and conquer strategy for setting your goals. If you have a goal that is one year or more away, then you can break it down into smaller goals with shorter time frames. From a one year goal, ask yourself: what do I need to accomplish in 6 months? In 3 months? In 1 month? By next week? That way, you have a much smoother road to the end goal because you have some intermediate points mapped out already.
Goal setting is more effective with immediate performance feedback. If you’re working on a goal and all the while having no way to measure your progress, then you’ll never know if you’re doing the right thing until you either achieve your goal or fail it.
But with immediate performance feedback, you can determine how well you are progressing. Then, adjust your strategy or the goal itself based on your progress. For example, if you find out that your goal is too complex, you can try to divide and conquer it or choose a different but related goal. If you are progressing extremely quickly, then you can raise your target to aim for higher achievements.
The important thing is that the feedback is immediate. If the feedback is not fast enough, then you won’t be able to adjust course in time before putting in significant effort. The feedback should also be objective, preferably even quantifiable, such that you have an exact measure of your performance and can adjust your course properly.
How to apply it
Set the target numbers you have to hit. For fitness, it can be doing 50 push-ups in a row. For the money, it can be a certain monthly income, like $10,000. When you quantify things, you know your exact percentage of progress and can then determine how well you are doing and if you need to change strategy.