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Towards a Science of Goals: Goal Setting as a Key Influence on Performance

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” – Michelangelo Buonarroti, Renaissance artist

In spite of our best intentions we fail at a lot of our goals. According to some estimates, a mere 8% of New Years’s Resolutions make it to the end of a year and nearly 80% have already failed or been abandoned by February. When it comes to academics and doctoral theses, over half will never be finished too (Lonka, 2003).

What causes such a high fail rate on our goals and can we do better?

While the idea of “s.m.a.r.t.” goals is often the first that comes to mind when you think about goals, there is an actual field of psychology dedicated to the science of goals. It’s well-researched and provides some very actionable approaches on how to better set and pursue our goals.

Started in the late 1960s, goal setting theory (GST) rests on its core claim that there is a relationship between goals and performance and that having a goal modifies how we behave. Though this idea might seem obvious now, this theory broke with the behaviorist tradition that interpreted much of how we behaved through either biological drives or rewards/punishments.

Goal Setting Theory attempt to explain how performance and motivation are affected by goals. One of the chief and earliest realizations of GST was the benefit to setting specific goals (over having no goals or vague “do your best” goals). It also found that there is a linear relationship between how difficult our goal is and how much better our performance is. To put it simply, the harder the goal, the higher the performance.

Subsequent research into goals has revealed many important aspects and key mechanisms on how to better plan and manage goals in companies, organizations and on a personal level. It has also crafted a powerful explanatory and actionable model called the High Performance Cycle (HPC).

In this post, we will be looking at the science of goals. While much of behavior is still viewed by many through the optics of biological drives or rewards/punishments, Goal Setting Theory (and other cognitive research on multiple goals like Goal Systems Theory) provide a much richer model for how goals function. This research indicates that two key things: 1. goals modify how we behave and 2. how we set goals affects aspects of how we perform and even how we feel.

As individuals and organizations, we can do better in pursuit of our objectives by learning the science of goals and applying its key lessons to how we set, track and manage our own goals!


NOTE 1: This is a fairly long and detailed post. If you want to skip the theory and just get to the applicable lessons, see the section below entitled, “How to Set Good Goals (according to science)”

NOTE 2: This post is the first part of an intended three-part series on goals and goal tracking. This first post focuses on the research related to goals, mostly goal setting theory. The second post in this series will look in more detail at three core aspects of goals: goal setting, goal tracking and goal management. The third and last post will look at a more practical, hands-on aspects to goal tracking, including how to build and leverage your own goal tracker tool in pursuit any objective you might have.

Towards A Science of Goals: Goal Setting as a Key Influence on Performance

Three Core Insights from GST: Specificity, Difficulty and Linear

Goal setting theory is a useful framework for understanding motivation and how certain aspects of goal setting can enable better performance and achievement. Its earliest research discover three core components to goal setting: specificity, difficulty and a linear between difficulty and outcome.

Published in 1968, Edwin Locke’s “Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives” already laid the foundation for two of its crucial claims: first, that hard goals produce higher performance and output than easy goals; and, second, that specific goals produce higher output than a goal of “do your best” or “no goal at all.” Basically, both the difficulty and specificity of the goal affects our output and performance on goal-related tasks.

The third and other key, early insight was the linear and positive relationship between the difficulty of the goal and performance. Using 12 early studies, Locke (1967) revealed the existence of an “empirical function” showing that the more difficult the goal, the higher the performance. Several of the original studies focused on loggers and felled trees and showed how setting a higher target of number of felled tress influenced how many they actually did.

Across other fields, numerous studies (like this figure from a recent PhD thesis by Alana S. Arshoff exploring primed cuing of goals) have shown this same linear relationship:

This particular study shows how even unconscious goals affect us. In this case, the subject was shown or “primed” using a picture of someone lifting either 20, 200 or 400 pounds. This primed image acted as a form of (non-conscious) goal setting, influenced behavior and led to increased effort in the subsequent test.

Lead by psychologists Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham, since then thousands of studies have gone on to lend further evidence backing up Goal Setting Theory’s central claims about the core of goals, namely specificity and difficulty. This has been shown across different fields, organizations and cultures too (Locke and Latham, 2013).

Let’s now we turn to the operational aspects of goals and look to one of its frameworks, the high performance model.

High Performance Model (HPM): A Conceptual Map of Goal Components

According to Goal Setting Theory, there is a relationship between demands (as “goals” are sometimes referred to) and task performance.

The goals themselves have two main aspects: content and intensity. Goal content refers to the object or result we want to get, while goal intensity refers to the positional aspects of that goal. Positional aspects might include effort to set that goal, one’s goal hierarchy or ranking of goals, or a person’s commitment to reaching that goal.

The High Performance Model (HPM) attempts to flesh out a full conceptual framework of the factors that affect how goals affect performance and motivation.

Figure 18.1 from “New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance” provides a good starting point:

The right side of the diagram covers motivation and more of the company’s influencing and framing role in goals. We will leave that out of our current discussions.

If we focus on the left part, we see the see our two key aspects of demands and performance. Demands are our goals and their intensity. This area refers to difficulty and specificity of our goals. You would also include here goal type (whether it is an outcome, performance, learning, or process goal) and the general goal time frame (long-term vs. short-term). More on these two concepts shortly.

Performance is the outcome and output of goal-related tasks. Performance is the independent variable or what you are trying to understand and influence. While most studies are focused on productivity, you might also use “creativity” as an intended output from our goal setting. Ultimately, performance is affected by the goal setting (or the core of the goal itself) and by several mediators and moderators.

Mediators refers to the motivational and cognitive mechanisms that make goals work. Mediators (more on this below) describes how setting goals affects our output and performance.

Moderator variables moderate the relationship and the impact goals have on our performance. This refers to the aspects that affect how well we do at our goals and goal-related tasks. They can be positive or negative. Some moderators accelerate or “up” our performance, while hinder us.

Let’s attempt to put this all together via a metaphor. Imagine all of these aspects of goal setting as different aspects of a car.

  • The key output or production is the car’s performance. This is how fast and how far the car goes.
  • The key dial that affects performance and motivation are the demands of goal setting. You might think about this as the size of the engine. If you set a hard and specific goal, then you are essentially getting a bigger engine with the potential to go faster and farther. Small goals might be more economical and “safer,” but you won’t have the horsepower for epic achievement.
  • The mediators aspect of our goal are like your accelerator and gears. These motivational and cognitive mechanisms of your focus, effort and persistence combine to act like multipliers and gears. You level up as they increase your speed and horsepower. Without them you can only go so far and fast.
  • Finally, like your brakes and suspension system, various moderators all affect if you will be able to perform at higher speed or not. Depending on the specifics of that moderator, like your ability, feedback, belief and commitment, you will see your performance change. The degree of that factor might hinder or help you. They act like the lubricant or an abrasive that will up shift or down shift your speed and distance when you are in certain gears.

In the end, all of these factors allow you to translate goals into high performance and motivation. They are also important considerations if you want to avoid failing at your goals and get more data-driven in how you set, track and mange your goals.

Let’s look at a few more of these components in more detail.

Mediators: Four key mechanisms on why goals work

Returning to moderators, GST believes that there are four key mechanisms for how hard and specific goals improve performance. The first three are motivational: focus, effort and persistence.

Focus or orientation describes the way in which a high goal brings attention towards “goal-relevant activities” and helps us avoid distractions and non-relevant tasks. When a goal is hard, we put more effort in it. In view of a more difficult goal, compared to an easy goal, we find ways to rise to its demands in our energy expenditure. We also stick with it more too. Much like Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit or “stick-to-it”-ness, hard and specific goals bring out a level of persistence that easier goals do not.

It could even be argued from the research by Anders Ericsson about that hard goals are the key to expertise. Made famous by Gladwell’s phase of the 10,000 hour rule, Ericsson describe “deliberate practice” as practice just at the limit of our ability. According to Ericsson, repeated practice on and feedback from these intense hard goals have the biggest influence on reaching skill mastery and expertise.

While the initial three GST factors are motivational factors, the fourth mechanism on why goals work is cognitive. When faced with a hard goal, simply trying our best and working our hardest may fail. Some goals are just really hard due to the difficulty and complexity of the underlying tasks and necessary skills needed. That’s where knowledge and task strategy come in. On really hard goals, we need to consider the best approach too and not just depend on effort. We should develop or learn a better process or skill or apply the optimal strategy to complete the goal.

All combined these, four mechanisms of focus, effort, persistence and (new) strategies play a key role in how we reach our goals.

Moderators: Limits/Accelerants of goals and performance:

While research is still on-going, GST have found several key moderator variables that affect how we perform in our goals, including ability, self-efficacy, feedback or knowledge of results, and commitment.

Ability is critical to completing anything we want to do, including goals. As we see in research by Eriksson on expertise or Csikszentmihalyi on flow, we want goals and tasks at the limit of ability but not too far beyond. We find pleasure in working on things that require our best skills. When you think about goals, you also need to consider if you have the skills necessary or not. If not, it is wise to first focus on developing the underlying skills.

Self-Efficacy is our belief in our ability. While we might actual have the skills or talent, we might not believe it. We see this in sports all the time. Talented individuals who lack the mental aspects. How confident we are in our skills affects how well we perform.

Feedback is also key to good goal setting, since, according to Locke and Latham, “Feedback allows people to decide if more effort or a different strategy is needed to attain their goal. When performance feedback is withheld, goal setting is ineffective for increasing performance.” Feedback can be viewed as both something you get from an external voice like a boss, but it can also be describe as a way to measure a goal. Wearables are a great example of collecting data that can then provide feedback on progress towards an objective like exercise. Measurement is also a critical component in Google’s OKR goal management system, an influential approach to handling goals in an organization.

Commitment is a somewhat poorly defined and conflated term in the research, but it includes elements of goal acceptance and belief that the goal is attainable. It also includes some aspects of the organizational commitment too. Quite simply, commitment matters becomes we need to be committed to the goal in order to see any behavior change. If you don’t believe in the goal, then no matter how you set or manage your goal it won’t matter.

Goal Types: Outcome, Performance, Process, and Learning

Much of the findings from GST focus on outcome and performance goals. Difficult goals with a clear target, like number of felled trees or weight lifted, correlate well with performance. But there is an increasing emphasis in literature on questions around different goals types and how they affect behavior. Broadly goal types fall into four types and two general groupings.

Outcome and performance goals are tangible and measurable goals. You want a specific amount, number, etc. or you want to reach a certain level of performance. This ties into the importance of specificity.

By contrast, learning or process goals are not intended to be measured in the same way. They might not even be measurable at all. The intention of these goals is to improve a skill or process. They are used in cases where you don’t yet have a skill or need to figure out the best approach on a problem.

A growing number of papers show how different goal type are best utilized for different situations. For example, it’s clear that goals beyond our ability or our self-efficacy (belief in our ability) tend to be less effective. Near impossible goals might still work to bring out focus, effort, and persistence, but lacking the skills and faced with an insurmountable challenge, we fail and end up demotivated.

In these cases, it’s best to first focus on the learning or process when you lack the ability. Once the skill or best technique is mastered, a performance goal again proves effective.

Intuitively, you might think about this as first asking yourself if you have the skills or level of skills necessary for a certain goal. Before settling on an outcome goal, consider if you need more training and consider your approach. If you don’t have the abilities, then first learn and develop the necessary skills. If your process is suboptimal, spend time figuring out a better approach.

Goal Proximity: Short-term vs long-term goals

Goal proximity describes what we commonly refer to as short- vs long-term goals. This conceptualization of goals and their time period might be considered as a core property of goals, like difficulty and specificity. But it could also be included as a mediator or even moderator, because of how they affect our goal-driven actions and moderate the relationship between goals and performance.

What does the science of goals tell us about this division of goals according to their time frame proximity?

The research is still on-going, but the existing studies suggests some limitation with long-term goals. The main findings suggest that long-term goals are typically less effective since we tend not to be motivated by distal (“too far in the future”) demands. Distant goals don’t motivate immediate action. By contrast, long-term goals do tend to be hard in their nature. When we set a long-term goals, we instinctively know it a big, difficult or epic thing we are aiming for.

While there are also some limits to only setting short-term goals, there is evidence that suggest that short-term and long-term goals appear to work best when combined. Where long-term goals aren’t immediate enough to spur action, they do provide vision and difficulty. Short-term goals provide a specific thing we are working towards and, if aligned, provide the strategic means towards our overall objective too.

For example, you might formulate this question of short-term vs long-term goals as having a driving distal goal (like a company mission or your own deep purpose) that is both hard and specific, and structuring it with various proximal goals. Ultimately, it seems that a powerful effect occurs when combining both types. Have big long-term and lifetime goals but strategically use short-term goals, projects and initiatives to move towards them.

Challenge of Dealing with Multiple Goals and Multiple Goal Systems

Arguably one key and on-going question remains for GST, and that’s how do we behave when dealing with multiple goals? This question takes GST beyond its focus on motivation and task performance and forces it into the general realm of psychology and cognitive social sciences.

The question of multiple goals can be taken both practically in terms of how we as individuals can handle multiple goals and in terms of the deeper question of how human behavior is affected when facing multiple goals. Since we are almost always operating in a situation of multiple goals, how we decide on our goals and how we decide on goal-related actions is a profound and fundamental human situation.

The main challenge underlying multiple goals is the limitation on resources like attention, time, energy, physical resources, etc. We can only do so much, and thus we have to make decisions on what goals to pursue and what actions to undertake towards them.

The theory of goal systems (Kruglanski, 2018) is not explicitly an inheritor of GST, but it does attempt to illuminate many of the same factors that play out in GST. As Kruglanski and others argue, goals are not a one-off, static affair but instead goals and decision-making employ a dynamic, cognitive system.

According to the theory of goal systems, goals themselves fall into multiple configurations, specifically in terms of the goals themselves and the means we deploy to reach them. In some cases, you might have one means that leads to two goals or conversely situations where multiple means leads to the same goal. These conflicts lead to a classic problem in both business and even computer science: among multiple options, how do we decide the best one?

The current research in GST shows that different multiple goal situations provide either alignment, conflict or resource strain. Individuals and organizations should be aware of this. If properly aligned and managed, multiple goal pursuits can still be optimized for improving performance and motivation. But if not, you can end up with conflict, decreased motivation and worse task performance.

Should we have multiple goals? How many? How best to pursue a combination of goals? There are a few approaches to dealing with multiple goals with the main thrust surrounding goal management, an area we will explore in a later post. A few techniques worth mentioning now.

One technique is goal prioritization (figuring out what matter most). You might look at Warren Buffet’s 5/25 rule as a starting point. Another interesting technique is developing a single, more abstract encompassing goal or mission (Stulberg, 2017). This “abstract” purpose allow you have a singular vision and provides the guide to put related objectives in relation to that.

Another technique for dealing with multiple goals and also what might be considered a notable implementation of the science of goals is OKRs. OKRs, which stands for OBJECTIVES, KEY RESULTS, is Google’s operational framework for goal setting, tracking and management inside the company (Doerr, 2018). The system involves a clear step where you set WHAT (the objective) you want to achieve, which should be significant and inspirational yet actionable, and then you determine the specific HOW (the key results) that are used to measure and benchmark how you get to that objective. The reality is that we always have multiple goals we might pursue in different time periods, but OKRs provides a way of figuring out the best goals and aligning key actions and results that get you there.

How to Set Good Goals (according to science)

GST is a pretty fascinating theory with lots of various interesting specific studies. It’s a theory continuing to probe various correlations and causal factors around goals, performance and human motivation. Before sharing some key lessons, let’s quickly re-summarize the key points of Goal Setting Theory (GST):

GST has proven that specific goals are most effective and that difficulty influences task performance and motivation. The relationship is linear such that the more difficult the goal, the higher the performance. Goals “work” through four mechanisms: focus, effort, persistence and task strategies. GST defines three key areas to consider around goals: properties, components and moderators.

So, how best to set good goals according to science?

1. Make your goal difficult (yet attainable).

If you want to achieve something epic, you need to set an epic goal. The science of goals reveals how hard goals bring out higher satisfaction and great performance. While easy goals might get done, rarely do easy goals lead to greatness. Instead, whatever the field from creativity to productivity, hard goals lead us to the work, grit and strategies necessary for peak performance.

So, don’t be afraid to set a hard, epic goal.

2. Be Specific.

In most situations (more on the exception in #5), the research is pretty definitive: specific goals work better than vague goals or having no goal at all.

Specificity can be thought of in terms of a measurable target or key action steps along with a defined time period. A good way to be specific is to come up with a one-liner for your goals. The formula is often put as “I will… by… as measured …” For example, I will finish writing 1.5 chapters for my book by Friday at noon, or I will lift weights for 25 minutes Monday and Thursday each week. These one-liners show an actionable or result you can measure and include a time frame.

So, if you want to improve your chances of completing your goals, make it specific and actionable.

3. Combine Both Long-Term or Short-Term Goals

There are limitations to just long-term or just short-term goals. A long-term goal tends not to spur action, and a short-term goal may not be big enough or inspirational enough to truly motivate us. The research suggests the multiplier effect of combing both types.

Use big long-term and lifetime goals to frame your purpose and focus your overall direction. Leverage short-term goals to take regular action. Schedule projects so you put in enough time and followup on key tasks. You may ultimately strive for a long-term goals, but shorter-term goals allow you to build up progress and develop skills towards it.

4. You Must Be Committed

It may seem obvious but if you lack commitment, then the research shows that no matter how you set the goal or plan it, you are unlikely to have a great performance. You won’t be motivated or satisfied either. We might get shamed or even pressured into some goal, but when we don’t really care about it, the goal provides ineffective.

Unlike a big aspect of our lives that are unconscious and habitual, goals are largely a conscious activity. We think about what we want, and we set a goal to get there. For behavior change to work using goals you need an intentional commitment.

If you are not truly committed to a goal, consider choosing another goal or reflect on why and how to find the necessary commitment. Ultimately, you must be committed if you expect that goal to really drive you to perform.

5. Learning Goals Before Outcome Goals

Outcome and performance goals have proven the most effective in improving task performance. It’s also where most of the research has been done. Outcome goals succeed largely due to their specificity and targeted difficulty. There is a caveat and that’s when goals are beyond our ability.

When you lack skills or are not sure about the best approach, then research shows that it’s best to first focus on learning and process goals. Learning or process goals are not intended to measurable. They focus on figuring out skills and techniques necessary for the task.

So, in cases where a goal requires new skills or you have questions about how best to do it, then spend the time on a short-term goal that helps you learn and develop a great process first. Once you got the skills and process down, go out and attack that big goal.

Conclusion: Goal Setting as a Key Influence on Performance

Goals are a profoundly important and arguably universal aspect of behavior among all living things (plants and animals included). Whether conscious of it or not, we are all in some form goal-driven. We use goals to modulate the plans we make and actions we undertake to get something we want.

As the research on goal setting theory shows, goal setting is a key aspect of our performance and motivation. From its earliest insights into the relationship between goals and performance to its formulation of its conceptual model, the high performance cycle, the science of goals provides some very actionable lessons for how best to leverage goals in our own lives. Most notably and worth repeating is that effective goal setting should aim at difficult and specific goals.

Unfortunately, in spite of the existing science on goals, the fail rate of goals like New Year’s Resolutions, remains incredibly high. A mere 8% of these resolutions last a year. Now that we’ve looked at the literature, let’s attempt to share a few reasons why most goals fail.

I don’t think setting difficult goals is the main reason for goal failure. We typically are pretty ambitious in our goals. But one obvious problem is that our goals often lack specificity. To borrow from David Allen and his “Getting Things Done” methodology, all tasks need a defined next action. If a goal or project doesn’t have a next action, then it’s just a dream. Dreams serve a purpose, but what we need to do is pursue goal-oriented actions. Failure comes from never figuring out what to do and never following through on the next actions towards our goals.

If you want to succeed at a goal, the recipe is simple: go out and complete the next, most important action towards your goal consistently, each and every day.

Commitment, while somewhat poorly defined in the literature, is the great decider on goal performance. If we aren’t committed (however you define it), then you won’t change your behavior to reach it. So, much like not figuring out and completing the next action, a lack of commitment signals something that is a dream rather than a committed goal.

Another reason why goals fail is lack of skills. The conceptual division of goal types (for example, learning vs outcome) was particularly helpful for me. It made me realize the important role played by learning and process goals. Before you attack a goal (like running a marathon or writing a book) where you lack the underlying skills, you need to build up certain skills and sub-goals.

Developing skills isn’t easy either, but if approach them first with an attitude of learning and positioned as short-term goals towards your long-term objective, they can prove effective in improving how well we do. Personally this has translated into more time spent developing skills and knowledge leading up to whatever big, difficult goals I choose.

Another reason why goals fail is having too many and not prioritizing. Like many people, I have a lot of goals. By my count, I have a list of over 200 goals. This isn’t such a bad thing in of itself. But, as Oprah Winfrey once reportedly said, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” This quote hits on the truth of how bad it is to try and pursue too many goals at once and shows why you should limit focus to a few key areas at a time. Without focus you end with too limited action in too many diverse areas.

We all have a limited amount of time, so we need to do two things: first, focus on a singular goal or a small list of goals, and, second, aggressively avoid other unrelated or non-priority goals.

Personally I have struggled with too many active interests, projects and goals, but more recently I’ve found value in restricting my focus to just 3-4 primary goals. A helpful activity is Buffet’s 5/25 rule. By locking in on a few goals, I’ve become better at saying “no” to interests that don’t match my primary objectives and are potential time sucks. Additionally I aim to be a expert in a few areas rather than a constant beginner in a wide range of areas.

Goals are an important aspect of being a human. The science we’ve looked at has shown some key principles we can follow to get better at setting effective goals (Repeat: Be specific. Make it difficult.). We can and should get better at setting our goals. But, for as notable as these insights on goal properties might be, there are some limitations when it comes to providing an actionable framework. This limitation is most apparent when we try to use it to help us track and manage multiple goals at the same time. Personally I think dealing with multiple goals remains a key challenge, especially for the overly ambitious.

Fortunately, we can go one step better and start to think about goals as a process, and a trackable process no less. I believe goals are best separated into three core parts: goal setting, tracking and managing. While Goal Setting Theory provides key answers to how to set your goals, the data-driven goal process, which is the topic of our next post on goals, can also help us improve how we track and manage our goals too. By learning to leverage a process, we become both more aware of what we are doing and better at getting there.

Best of luck on your goal-driven journey!


References:

Arshoff, A. S. (2014). The linear relationship between the difficulty level connoted by a primed goal and task performance (Ph.D Thesis). University of Toronto.

Doerr, J. (2018). Measure What Matters. Penguin.

Kruglanski, A. W., Shah, J. Y., Fishbach, A., & Friedman, R. (2018). A theory of goal systems. In The Motivated Mind (pp. 215-258). Routledge.

Lonka, K. (2003). Helping doctoral students to finish their theses. In Teaching academic writing in European higher education (pp. 113-131). Springer.

Locke, E. A. (1967). Further data on the relationship of task success to liking and satisfaction. Psychological reports.

Locke, E. A. (1968). Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives. Organizational behavior and human performance, 3(2), 157-189.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2013). New developments in goal setting and task performance. Routledge.

Stulberg, B., & Magness, S. (2017). Peak Performance. Rodale.

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