People begin every year by setting goals for how they will improve in the new year. They think this is the year they will finally get in shape, improve their finances, find a new job, or improve their family relationships. Yet, for most people, these resolutions don’t stick. One common reason New Year's Resolutions (and goals set at any time of year) fizzle out is that the goal itself is setting you up for failure. A goal set correctly is a powerful motivational tool, but if you don’t set the right kind of goal, it could be useless or even demotivating!
If you’ve read anything about goal setting before, it has probably referenced SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) goals. Although this is a simple place to begin, it omits many complexities of goal-setting theory. Someone once asked me how much research there could be on setting goals, and I responded by handing them this large book full of research. Goal-setting theory has decades of research to support its conclusions, and focusing only on the “SMART” aspects ignores many important factors like feedback, self-efficacy, and learning goals. All the elements of SMART goals are addressed when you use the five questions below, and the questions include aspects of goal-setting that SMART goals overlook. So, if you’ve had difficulty meeting your goals or forgetting your resolutions over the years, use these five questions to revise your goals, so they work for you instead of setting you up to fail.
1. Are your goals specific?
One of the most common problems in setting goals is to make a vague goal. Decades of research have demonstrated that specific goals lead to better outcomes than vague goals or merely trying to “do your best.” Setting vague goals like “getting in shape” or “being more confident” or “improving personal relationships” aren’t motivating. If you think about it, they aren’t even goals. A goal is the desired end state. If the goal is vague, you don’t have an end to reach. A specific goal should include a measurable outcome and a deadline so that you know what you need to accomplish by when.
Large, overarching goals may require setting multiple specific goals. For example, you know you want to get in shape. So, you can choose multiple specific goals based on nutrition. If you are just getting started, you can set a goal to record the calories for all of your meals for the next month. This goal is specific, measurable, and has an exact deadline. You can follow up the next month by choosing a certain number of days per week to eat less than a set amount of calories. You would also likely want to create specific exercise goals. By creating many specific, measurable subgoals, you are making a process to reach your overarching goal of improving your health.
2. How will you receive feedback?
Receiving feedback helps you track your progress to know whether your approach is working and whether you need to adjust your amount of effort. Imagine that your goal is to run a 5k, but you have no way of knowing how far you are running. You wouldn’t know when to stop or whether you needed to adjust your pace. This lack of feedback would make training almost impossible. Although there are fitness trackers that alleviate this specific problem, feedback on some goals can’t be automatic.
Goals for personal growth and development are essential, but it is often challenging to find ways to measure your progress. Let’s say you have an overarching goal of increasing your confidence. There are several specific goals you could set. You could set a goal of speaking twice in every meeting in the next week. That goal is specific and will provide instant feedback (you know how many times you speak), but it may not match your overarching goal of feeling more confident. You may feel self-conscious about speaking in meetings, and if the two times you speak don’t contribute much or your comments are not well-received by your peers, it could make you more self-conscious. Alternatively, your end goal could be to find a self-report assessment of confidence and move your score from a 4 to a 7. Then your feedback could be based on periodically retaking the assessment and seeing if you feel more confident. You could also solicit feedback from people who interact with you. This feedback could range from informal conversations with people you trust to multi-rater assessments to quantify how confident you seem to others or a combination of the two. The informal feedback could help you understand what is working and what isn’t, and the quantitative information could serve as your specific end goal.
Whichever method of feedback you choose, you must know you will be able to receive feedback when you first set your goal. You need to see your progress to stay motivated and know whether you are on track to reach your goal or need to make changes. If you’ve set a goal you believe is specific enough but can’t find a way to receive feedback (automated or from others), you may need to revise your goal.
3. Are your goals difficult?
What is the purpose of accomplishing an easy goal? If a goal is too easy for you, then you’ll either meet it quickly and stop working or put it off until the last minute because you know it doesn’t require much effort. Goal difficulty has a linear relationship with performance. This means that if you set a difficult goal, you will accomplish more than if you set an easy goal. You have to work harder to accomplish difficult goals, so it makes sense that if you work harder, you can achieve more. However, the goal should also not be so difficult that you believe it is impossible. If a goal seems impossible, then it is demotivating. Why would you waste your time if there is no chance of success? The key is for you to believe that the goal is possible.
Self-efficacy is your belief about your ability to perform a particular task, and it affects almost all aspects of the goal-setting process. Self-efficacy is task-specific, unlike more general self-esteem, which means you can be confident in your ability to meet some goals, but not others. If you have high task-specific self-efficacy, you will set more difficult goals, invest more effort into completing your goals, and persevere through setbacks. This increased effort will increase your likelihood of meeting your goals, and meeting goals will increase your self-efficacy. This pattern can continue as a virtuous cycle of increasing your performance and self-efficacy. But it can also act as a vicious cycle if you set goals that are too difficult and continuously fail to meet them. If you have lower self-efficacy, you can begin the virtuous cycle by completing an easier goal to begin to build self-efficacy. But remember that if the goal is too easy, you won’t feel as if you have accomplished much, and it may not help your self-efficacy. Thus, setting difficult but achievable goals is important to both your current goal performance and your belief in your ability to accomplish future goals.
4. Do you have the skills to meet your goals?
The answer to this question can be yes or no, and you can still set a worthwhile goal. The difference is the type of goal that will work for you. There are two possible end states for your goals: learning something (learning goal) or meeting a performance standard (performance goal). Performance goals are useful when you have the knowledge and skills to complete a task, and learning goals are useful when a task is new or complex. A performance goal is what you typically think about as a goal - defining the outcome you want to achieve. For example, as someone who has completed several 5k races and is familiar with the necessary training, you can set a specific, difficult, performance goal of completing a 5k one minute faster than your current personal best.
If the task is something you do not already have the requisite knowledge and skills for, then a difficult performance goal will make you do worse! You have limited cognitive resources, so you have to choose where to focus your attention. If you focus only on reaching a performance standard, you’ll never learn the strategies you need to achieve it. For example, you could have a goal to have your website on the first page in a search engine for a particular search term. That is a specific and likely difficult performance goal. However, suppose you have little knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO). In that case, you could either be completely overwhelmed and demotivated or quickly choose any strategy you find and then focus on the outcome. If you don’t spend the time exploring all of the processes to increase your SEO (and there are many), you could get stuck trying to use a strategy that will never work for you. A learning goal focuses on learning a process rather than achieving an outcome. For example, “learn five methods of improving SEO and when they work best.” Focusing on the process allows you to place all of your attention on learning how to find the best approach instead of wasting your time and energy trying to meet a goal that you don’t know how to meet. Choosing a learning goal doesn’t mean you can never perform a complex task; it may be to your advantage to focus on learning first to have the skills you need to meet a difficult performance goal.
5. Are you committed to your goals?
Goal commitment is a psychological bond that reflects how dedicated to and responsible you feel about a goal. It should come as no surprise that the more committed you are to a goal, the more motivated you will be, and the higher your performance will be. Goal commitment goes beyond commitment to your specific goal. Commitment to a vague, overarching goal can motivate you to keep working toward that goal after you’ve finished a specific subgoal.
The attractiveness of the goal and expectancy of goal attainment predict the level of commitment. The expectation of attaining the goal is related to self-efficacy, which is discussed above. Goal attractiveness means that if a goal is relevant and meaningful to you, you will be more committed to meeting it. Setting attractive goals makes sense when selecting your own goals, but sometimes goals may be assigned to you. If you are assigned a goal, you should try to ask why the goal is important and how it matters to you. Understanding the value of what you are assigned to do can increase attractiveness and help motivate you. If you are a manager, you should always explain why goals are important to your team members so that they buy-in and are committed. Making assigned goals seem attractive may be easier if you allow them to participate in the goal-setting process.
If you are looking for an easy way to increase your goal commitment, share your goals publicly or with a friend. When other people know your goals, it increases your accountability and commitment to completing the goal. At Tilt, we set goals at the beginning of each year and share them with the whole team so that we can all hold each other accountable.
The next time you begin the goal-setting process, review these five questions to be sure your goals are working for you instead of against you. Choosing the right type of goal (learning or performance) and setting specific, difficult, and attainable goals will increase your chances of success. Sharing your goals and ensuring you will have continuous feedback can make your goals even more motivating. Start this year or this week with goals that will motivate you.
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