Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Science of Goals: Goals as a Multi-Stage Pursuit

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!

NOTE 1: This post is part of a series on the science of goals. Also check out Goal Setting as a Key Influence on Performance.

What is a Goal? From Goals as an Intention to Goals as a Pursuit

The term “goal” can be defined in a few ways, and the conflation of these meanings into a single term not only causes confusion when we want to take about the science of goals, but it also causes us as goal pursuers to confuse what we are doing when we pursue goals.

For example, in my life, I use the term “goal” in two markedly different situations. On the one hand, I have this huge list of goals that I hope to one day do, try or reach. For example, visit all 7 continents, learn French, write a novel, etc. In a scientific sense it is misleading to call these goals or goal pursuits, especially when I’m not taking action towards their abtainment. It’s better to call them dreams or fantasies.

On the other hand, I do have several goal pursuits I work on at anytime. These are active things I’m striving to advance and reach. While it might be okay to have an infinite list of dream goals, we are limited to how many active goal pursuits one can effectively maintain. Combining too many projects with limited time, focus and resources is assuredly a recipe forgoal failure.

So, what is a goal?

At its simplest, a goal is the object or aim of an action. It’s the thing we want to acheive through an action, or in most cases, a series of action.

You could say that a goal is an internal representation of a desired state. In contrast to a behavorist model of rewards and responses, goals serve a cognitive function for so-called “higher” or more sophisticated biological forms of life or creatures with a philosophy of mind. First, we imagine and visualize what we want and, in turn, take goal-directed actions that are in concordance with our plans for accomplishing it. We see this in various experiments on mammals (like certain monkeys) and cephalopods (like octopus) when confronted with a desired treat and a challenge to reach it. These animals, much like humans, are able to evaluate a situation, make a plan and execute. There might be some trial-and-error in reaching the solution but the goal intention is something they possess cognitively. They act on their goals.

For us, goals are more than just a one-off, single task target. Goals are hard and not easily accomplished. We commmonly think about goals as projects and endevours that involve multiple steps and take time. Unlike other human behavior, goals tend to require resources, skills, opportunities, teamwork and a good deal of figuring stuff out.

As such, psychologists make the following distinction:

  • Goal Intentions: These are the desired end state, or the something we have want to have but have yet to attain. A goal intention is often the traditional sense used when we refer to “goals.” The key question here is: what is the end state or goal we want to get?
  • Goal Pursuit: Often referred to as goal striving, this is an action perspective of goals. As such goals as a goal pursuit take various actions. These goal-directed action encompass “all activities directed towards an “intended goal” (Achtziger, 2010). The key question here is: what are the goal actions necessary to pursue this goal intention?

Goal psychologists have divided into two camps. The first camp focuses on the content of the goal and how this plays a key role in performance and eventual attainment. You can associate this camp with Latham and Locke’s specific challenging goals in Goal Setting Theory, Dweck’s learning goals and Higgin’s promotion goals.

The second camp focuses on how people are able to regulate the pursuit of their goals. This involves a deeper understanding of the self-regulatory agent (the goal do-er) in this pursuit and their various challenges, conflicts and decisions. For example, emotional control, goal selection, competiting goals, planning, mindsets and implementation intentions to name a few.

While setting goals does matter, goals often can only be obtained when our goal pursuit manages to complete a series of stages and is supported by various self-regulatory strategies.

The term “goal” thus describes both goal intentions and goal pursuits. A goal intention is the objective we want to attain, while a goal pursuit is the multistage striving for that objective.

Self-Regulatory View of Goals

It’s fun to set goals, but the problems of actual goal attainment are numerous and accute: not setting a goal, failure to get started, getting derailed, not taking goal action opportunities, overextending oneself, competing interests, poor pursuit, and many others (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).

The recognition that goal failure and goal performance depend on more than the content of our goal setting lies at the heart of the self-regulatory view of goals. It’s an active area of research and writing in the social sciences with many perspectives to consider.

According to the Theory of Self-Regulation, our goal behavior display a number of cognitive, behavioral and emotional processes over time and in different situations (ex. Karoly, 1993). Self-regulation has led psychologists to posit that our goal-action behavior can be divided into “discrete phenomena” (Gollwitzer, 1990) and to work towards a temporal, multistage conceptualization of the goal pursuit.

Heckhausen and Gollwitzer believe that goal pursuits exist as a series of stages and transitions that they and others call the Model of Action Phases (MAP) or Rubicon Model of Action Phases (Heckhausen & Gollwitzer, 1987; Heckhausen, 1991). They argue that in order to understand and to improve our goal pursuits, we first need to discern the constituent parts of goal striving.

Crossing the Rubicon: From Predecisional to Volitional Goal Actions

Before looking at its constitent phases, it is important to note that at the center of this model is a transition point, the point where we decide to take action towards a goal. We shift from thinking and deliberating about whether and what goals to planning and action.

Metaphorically, Heckhausen and Gollwitzer 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.

Before we are in predecision phase of goal deliberation and ask ourselves questions like: What goals should I select? What goal is best and why?.

After crossing this transition point, we have made a decision and committed to our goal. Our thinking changes, and we now begin to ask questions like: How can I achieve this goal? What do I need to do to attain it?

Stages, Boundaries and Transition Points of the Goal Pursuit

The (Rubicon) model of action phases postulates that there is a “course of action” or “series of consecutive phases” in our goal-directed behavior. This course goes through phases that have clear and recognizable boundaries. The different phases have different mindsets, tasks and underlying questions (Achtziger, Gollwitzer, 2010).

As anyone who pursues goals and projects can attest to, there is a difference between pondering and dreaming about goals and actual advancing on them. I think most people have experienced this difference when we go from the open mind wandering of wishes and dreams to the actualization of planning and doing. Psychologists refer to this as a shift from motivational, predecision phase to the volitional phase.

The model of action phases recognizes that a “transformation” occurs when a wish becomes a goal pursuit. Namely we move from “a fluid state of deliberating the value of a potential goal to a firm sense of commitment to its enactment, i.e. to the formation of a goal intention” (p. 277, Achtziger, 2010).

Here is a schematic of the four action phases and their boundaries:

Source: “Chapter 11: Motivation and volition in the course of action” (A Achtziger; PM Gollwitzer, 2010).

The key transition points are between deliberation and goal decision, between planning and actual goal actions, and between goal actions and goal completion or evaluation.

Model of Action Phases: Overview

Broadly speaking, according to the model of action phases, the goal pursuit is divided into two parts:

  1. the motivational (what goal are we going to do? and how did our goal efforts go?) and
  2. the volitional (what are my plans towards that goal? and what actions am I doing?).

You might say at the center are two phases focused on planning what one should be doing and actually doing it. At the two ends of the model, we find processes associated with considerations about if the goal is the right one and how the recent goal activities went.

According to Achtziger and Gollwitzer, the Rubicon model addresses four questions:

  • How do people select their goals?
  • How do they plan the execution of their goals?
  • How do they enact their plans?
  • How do they evaluate their efforts to accomplish a specific goal?

Each of these questions is both a practical question facing the goal pursuer (e.g. what should I do with the goal I’m pursue at this moment in time?), and a theoretical and scientific question facing researchers (e.g. what is going on for goal pursuers and what are leads to success or failure at this juncture of their goal pursuit?).

Deliberation: What goal should I select?

“Once subjects move from planning and goal-setting to the implementation of plans, they cross a metaphorical Rubicon. That is, their goals are typically protected and fostered by self-regulatory activity rather than reconsidered or changed, often even when challenged.” Lyn Corno, The best laid plans, p. 15

People have multiple wishes, desires, and dreams. These are things we might possibly want to do, but since there only so much time, energy, resources, etc., we have to decide on if we will pursue those goals or not.

This predecisional phase is where we weigh the desirablity and feasilbity of our goals: Is the goal (or outcome of that goal) something I truly want and desire? And is that goal something that is feasible and I can reasonably expect to reach it?

Our mind-set here faciltates the core task of “choosing the most desirable wish that is also feasible” (p. 64, Gollwitzer, 1990). This leads to a cognitive tuning focused on information processing that is relevant to making that determination.

Experiments have shown that in this predecisional phase we are open-minded, more receptive to information in general, and show signs of critical thinking. We are attuned more to alternatives rather than the how-to and stategies of goal acheivement. We contemplate and have better recall of our open options rather than our plans.

There is on-going research on strategies you can use here, but one notable example that appears effective is mental contrasting, which involve reconciling the fantasy aspect of a goal with a realistic assessment of the obstacles (Oettingen, 2010).

Planning: What should I do? And when and where should I do it?

The task to be solved by the postdecisional (preactional) individual is planning when, where, and how to act in order to promote action initiation (p. 65, Gollwitzer, 1990)

When we commit to a goal, which is sometimes called a “goal decision,” our psychological orientation or mindset changes, and we shift into volition or the process of making and acting on our goal decision.

This phase is about planning and strategizing with a focus on determing the required when, where and how so our goal pursuit can be successful.

Compared to the Deliberative Mindset, the Implementational Mindset displays more “closemindedness” in the sense that its “cognitive tuning” concentrates more on information relevant to task performance and ignores less-relevant information. We see individuals attuned to and devoting more time to planning.

In terms of their memory, they have less recall of alternative options, e.g. separate goals, and have easier recall of information related to planning, e.g. goal-relevant tasks. Basically they are less aware of so-called “incidental infomation” of other stuff and more in-tune with ways to move forward with their established goal.

There are two problems facing us after we’ve decided on a goal and before we have started acting on it:

  1. The first challenge is figuring out what actions we need to take. To some extent after committing to a goal, we know a few actions we might take but we likely haven’t determined all of the necessary steps nor determined the optimal best actions. So the planning stages involves some degree of learning and strategizing.
  2. The second challenge is to determine the right opportunities for those goal-directed activities. Oftentimes we have to wait for the appropriate opportunity (when and/or where) to act on our goals. For example, the goal might require a certain amount of time, equipment, or time of day. A common reason why we fail at a goal is not seizing or recognizing these opportunities to act. Sometimes we have a goal but we haven’t planned the when and where for doing it.

So, the questions facing us in this phase are two-fold: 1. What actions do I need to take to move towards my goal? and 2.) What situation, environment or context do I need to put in place so I take those actions?

Basically this boils down to the challenge of implementation. To successfully reach a goal, we need to figure out the how, when and where.

The realization that implementation is key to goal realization has led to a heavy focus in the literature on this stage of action phases, both theoretically and practically. By understanding what goes on in implementation formation, we can better determine why we fail at goals. Also once we start to understand operationally what is happening, on the practical side, we can formulate and provide strategies to avoid those failures.

Self-regulation and implementation strategies are a key aspect to improving our goal pursuit, and there are quite a few areas and techniques that have been studied and proven effective, including the type of goals we set. A full dive into these strategies is outside the scope of this article, but one in particular is worth noting and that’s implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions describes the goal stategy where you consider specific situational cues and formalate your behavior as a cued response in those situations. In contrast to pure goal intentions like “I want to acheive goal X”, implentation intentions are in a format like, “If situation Y arises I will initiate behavior Z.” We form a mental link between an act and a trigger. The point is to initate and automate the target activity based on a situational cue.

Often called “if-then” plans, implementation intentions have been well-researched, and there is robust support for the positive effect on goal attainment and task performance (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).

If you are looking to apply one lesson from the science of goals using action phases, implementation intentions is one of the best and most effective. Arguably it is something many of us already do when we put a meeting in a calendar or assign a block of time of the day to work on something. Both of these are situations where we’ve decided what we will do and assigned it to the when and where to do it.

Action: How can I ensure I follow-through on my actions and avoid distractions?

The Action Phase is one of the least discussed in the literature I’ve seen on model of action phases. This is partially due to the fact that the specific actions we take vary significantly from goal to goal.

The Action Phase is where we enact our strategies developed during the planning implementation phase. During the action phase it is crucial to stay on goal-relevant tasks and avoid anything that takes away you from those tasks. In order to reach a goal, we need to maximize goal-facilitating action and minimize anything that takes us away from those actions.

The Actional Mindset is associated with “steadfast pursuit” and deploys a few approaches when pursuing goals. The two most notable are:

  1. stepping up efforts when facing difficulties and
    1. resuming goal directed actions after interrupts.

When the going gets tough, one effective response is to work harder, and when we get off track, the best response is to resume activity as soon as possible.

Strategically, the key focus should be to avoid “any halting of the flow of action that postpones goal achievement” (p. 66, Gollwitzer, 1990). Besides the actions themselves, the key actional task for sucessful goal directed activity is to shield ourself from distractions and tempations.

There is an an overlap between the action phase in the model of action phases and the experience of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008). “Flow” or “being in the zone” is the intense experience of being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. It’s a state of consciousness of total concentration and hypervigilance that has been witnessed in various athletes and creatives in peak performance (Kotler, 2014).

When it comes to pursuing our goals, flow provides a good way to measure how focused we are on actions and are able to avoid distractions, temptations and alternative goals. If we are in flow, then we are fully in the action phase, actively pursuing the task at hand.

Evaluation: Did I reach my goal and how did I do?

This mindset is “cognitive tuning towards information releveant to assessing the quality of the acheived outcome and the desirabliity of its consequences” (p. 281, Achtziger, 2010).

According to the Model of Action Phases, goals go through a series a steps and might even be described as a cycle or feedback-loop.

We can’t plan or pursue a goal nonstop. Eventually it comes to an end or a point of reflection and evaluation. This post-actional phase recognizes that after completing a goal (successfully or not), we evalute it and ask questions. In particular, first we ask “whether the intended outcome has been achieved” and second, we wonder “whether the actual value of the goal striving matches its expected value” (p. 59, Gollwitzer, 1990).

We measure the results of our actions against the goal set and establish if the goal has been reached, and then we score the outcomes of our actions, their consequences, and their newly accessed value.

The associated mindset here is called the Evaluative Mindset. Like the other phases, the evaluative mindset carries with it its own psychological characteristics. This includes a more objective way of viewing and judging our personal situation and a return to more open-mindness where we explore alternatives.

Several questions typically come to mind:

  • Did I acheive what I intended?
  • How well have I succeeded in acheiving my goal?
  • Can I consider this goal complete?
  • Did the action result in the positive consequences I anticipated?
  • Is the goal’s worth/value the same or different now?
  • If the goal failed or wasn’t obtained yet, should the goal be abandonned?
  • If I decide to continue, should I proceed with a different means or approach?

In the evaluation phase, we look at our original goal set and determine if we hit the mark. In view of our recent efforts and our increased knowledge, we can again consider the desirability of that goal and reevaluate aspects of its feasibility.

Ultimately this will lead us to decide on our next step. This might be ending that goal pursuit, which is referred to as “goal deactivation,” or starting a renewed goal pursuit involving a revised goal setting, goal implementation and goal actions. In either case, our recent efforts have provided knowledge, experience and likely skills to improve our future goal performances.

Conclusion: Recognize the Stage of Your Goals and Tailor Accordingly

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.

子曰: 射有似乎君子失诸正鹄反求诸其身 (中庸)

Confucius, quoted in Book of Rites

Goals are a complex behaviorial phenomon. While much of our scientific understanding about goal has improved, many mysteries remain. The temporal aspect of goals is a critical component since most of our goals take place over long time frames with deadlines. For example, during the goal pursuit, we receive feedback on our progress and modulate our specific behavior according to how much time is left and where are actions might contribute most effective to our goal success. This idea has been explored in attempts at computational modeling of the goal pursuit (e.g. Vancouver, 2010).

In this article, we focused on deepening our understanding of goals as a multiple stage pursuit. By reframing goals as a pursuit, it’s clear that goals are best understood and approached through these different stages. A typical goal pursuit goes through different stages, key transitions, and mindsets. The Rubicon Model of Action Phases shows that our goal striving involves a “consecutive series” of four stages: deliberation, planning, action and evaluation. Most important is the transformation from a predecision goal option to a committed goal intention once we decide on a goal.

For both a science of goals and for anyone pursuing goals, the Model of Action Phases provides a lot of useful and interesting ideas. For me, this model has contributed heavily to why I goals as a process or cycle, rather than just a target. It’s also made more conscious of clarifying at what stage a goal is in and applying effective goal management techniques for both goal review and goal implementation.

Goals are not just a representation of what we want to achieve, but an aspect of a more complex framework for goal-driven human action across time and across different situations. If we are going to reach our goals, we need recognize not only this distinction but find the appropriate strategies tailored towards our particular goal in that particular phase.

For example, when facing the challenge of deliberation, goal selection and goal setting, we can apply aspects of mental contrasting or goal setting theory. Similarly in the planning phase, it is most effective to use implementation intentions and if-then plans to prime us for the how, when and where of goal-orientated action. When it comes to goal actions, the key task is to maximize goal-directed activity and minimize distractions and temptations. This could include aspects of productivity and time management, like of “deep work” (Newport, 2016), or optimizing peak performance using “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

I believe that In order to optimize our goal pursuit, it can be helpful to clarify where our different goals fit with these different phases. This allows you can bring the best mindset (open-ness vs. close-minded focus) and ask the appropriate questions (deliberative- vs. implementation- vs. evaulative-oriented). And, of course, knowing what stage you are in with a particular goal can make you aware of some appropriate self-regulation and action control strategies.

In “Strategies of setting and implementing goals: Mental contrasting and implementation intentions” (2010), one of my favorite acadmeic articles on the science of goals, Oettingen and Gollwitzer put it succinctly: the “psychology of goals suggests that successful goal pursuit hinges on solving two sequential tasks: goal setting and goal implementation” (p. 114). If you want to improve your goals, you need to understand and optimize your strategies for both. Their paper goes into depth about two of the best strategies mental contrasting and implementation intentions. But many other strategies and techniques remain to be researched and considered.

By understanding goal action phases, you start to recognize what stage your goals are in and apply optimal strategies. This act will not only help you better understand the science of goals but hopefully help you make the right decisions and actions towards acheiving them.


Achtziger, A., & Gollwitzer, P. (2010). Motivation and volition in the course of action. Retrieved from http://kops.uni-konstanz.de/bitstream/handle/123456789/1304/Achtziger_Gollwitzer_motivation_and_volition.pdf

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

Corno, L. (1993). The best-laid plans: Modern conceptions of volition and educational research. Educational researcher, 22(2), 14-22. Retrieved from http://www.david-dai.net/s/Corno1993.pdf

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493. Retrieved from http://kops.uni-konstanz.de/bitstream/handle/123456789/10101/99Goll_ImpInt.pdf

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.

Heckhausen, Heinz, and Peter M Gollwitzer. “Thought Contents and Cognitive Functioning in Motivational Versus Volitional States of Mind.” Motivation and emotion 11.2 (1987): 101-20.

Heckhausen, J, and H Heckhausen. Motivation and Action. Springer (1991).

Karoly, Paul. Mechanisms of Self-Regulation: A Systems View. Annual review of psychology 44.1 (1993): 23-52.

Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Lewin, Kurt. “Vorsatz, Wille Und Bedürfnis.” Psychologische Forschung 7.1 (1926): 330-85.

Newport, C. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Hachette UK (2016)

Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals: Mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Retrieved from http://kops.uni-konstanz.de/bitstream/handle/123456789/1321/oettingen_gollwitzer_strategies.pdf

Vancouver, J. B., Weinhardt, J. M., & Schmidt, A. M. (2010). A formal, computational theory of multiple-goal pursuit: Integrating goal-choice and goal-striving processes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 985.