When it comes to goals, we commonly conflate several different actions and phenomonon under this singular term of “goal.” But this one term hides an important range of dimensions and actions we undertake when we think about and endevour to reach our goals. One of the most crucial differences is between a goal as an intention and a goal as a pursuit.
German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin was one of the earliest to make the distinction between what he called goal setting and goal striving (Lewin, 1926). His point being that we have a period where we deliberate, ponder and possibly select our goals; and a period where we actually strive towards realizing those goals.
In our own lives we all typically have a huge list of things we want to accomplish in both the short-term and long-term. For example, write a novel, learn French, take a trip to Australia, buy a house, read Homo Sapiens, etc. The items that we expect to take a considerable amount of time or effort we often call “dreams” or “long-term goals,” while the shorter term stuff that take a few days or weeks we might refer to as projects, initiatives or short-term goals. Usage of the term “goal” here proves slippery. Is it a term for our hopes, dreams and aspirations or is it a word to convey something we are actually pursuing? What’s going on when we talk about goals?
In the last couple decades, a considerable amount of research by psychologists has gone into understanding goals, what they are and the different actions we must take to attain them. There are also increasingly a number of powerful strategies that can leverage to improve our goals too.
While much of the early focus in the research on goals was placed on goal setting and the “content” of our goals (a topic we explored in goal setting for improving task performance), acheiving our goals goes beyond just setting a goal. Acheiving a goal isn’t easy. A significant part of the challenge comes from what psychology calls “self-regulation,” by which I mean individuals must manage an ambiguous process, make decisions and take actions regarding allocation of resources and effort across time and varying situations.
You don’t just set a goal, and the magic of reaching that goal happens. Things need to be figured out. Much like Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, we embark on a journey with obstacles and challeges at different points in order to reach our objective. In short, goals exist as a multistage pursuit.
Psychologists now recognize this much more complex and nuanced nature of our goal pursuit, in particular this aspect of self-regulation and different stages. According to the Model of Action Stages, which we will explore in depth below, psychologists have identified four action phases involved when we strive towards a goal, namely: deliberation, planning, action and evalution.
Researchers have shown that there also exists a critical transition between the predecision phase of goal deliberation (e.g. what goals should I pursue and why?) and our post-decision when have commited to a goal (e.g. how can I achieve this goal and what do I need to do?). Metaphorically, they call this “crossing the Rubicon” in reference to Julius Cesaer’s overthrowing of Rome, and it refers to a recognizable shift in our mindset or psychological orientation. Pre-decision or pre-goal commitment, we deliberate and consider. Post-decision, we plan and take actions.
We see this in our own lives. We often have a big list of dreams and fantasies, but a much shorter list of active pursuits. In-between our goals typically have specific phases and cycles they go through, including planning, execution and evalution.
Goal are a multiple stage pursuit. I believe the science of goals can help us improve how we understand and how we reach our goals. Using the Rubicon Model of Action Stages, we get a “big picture” idea of typical goal pursuits and can start to recognize where we are at. By knowing the stage we are at with a certain goal, we can realize the key tasks and challenges we face. We then can apply the right mindset to deal them. Finally, by learning and deploying the right approaches and optimal strategies, we can get better both at abtaining our goals and at perceiving when to let certain goals fail.
Let’s get started looking at the science goals and the stages involved in a goal pursuit!