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How to Set Goals that Work!


Posted on January 26th, 2011 by Jeff Thiboutot M.S.

Are you moving closer to the things you want?  If you are struggling to achieve your goals or at least move much closer to them, then you will want to consider how you have set up your goals. The reason you want to consider spending your precious time on this endeavor is the fact that setting goals in a certain way can greatly increase your odds of actually achieving your goals (Reeve). This is particularly important when it comes to your ability to modify your bodyweight and health as this entails making lifestyle changes, such as eating and exercise habits (Shilts et al).

The first thing to consider: Why set formal goals at all? Why spend the time to figure out what you really want and writing out your goals in a very specific manner? The reason; goals are great at energizing and directing behavior (Reeve).  Because of these effects, people who set goals in a certain way (see below for specifics), tend to achieve more than people who don’t. Additionally, people who set challenging but realistic goals tend to be happier and experience higher levels of well being (Koestner et al; Kraus). Therefore, if you want to increase your drive, persistence, and likely your well-being then it is a good idea to get in the habit of setting goals for yourself.

When setting goals, there are a number of specific strategies that will make your goals much more likely to be fruitful.  Here are what I think are the top 10 things to do. I will explain each of them briefly after the list.

  1. Written
  2. Inspirational/congruent
  3. Challenging
  4. Specific
  5. Approach oriented
  6. Measureable
  7. Proximal/Distal
  8. Feedback
  9. Rewards (internal & external)
  10. Identify potential obstacles

Written

You need to have your goals and all the things associated with them (see numbers 2 through 10) written down. This can be in a notebook, or in a word document or some type of app for your phone. Whatever it is, make sure you have transferred your thoughts into visible text (Kraus).

Inspirational/Congruent

You need to spend a bit of time and figure out what you really want. There is no problem with others giving you some input, but you need to be clear on what YOU want and have good reasons for it. You need your goals to be congruent with your core beliefs (Koestner et al).

Challenging

It is clear that goals that are more challenging lead to greater effort and persistence than easy goals (Locke et al). However, be careful to not set goals that are perceived as unattainable, as this can lead to negative emotional and behavioral outcomes (Kraus).

Specific

Be clear in what you are striving for and HOW you are going to get there. Ambiguous goals like, “do your best”, “work harder”, or “eat better” will often do little to improve your behaviors (Reeve). You need to have a very clear plan of attack. If you are going to change your eating habits, for example, then you need to be clear on what that should be, such as “I will eat 2-4 times a day, each meal will have 30-40 grams of protein, 20-30 grams of carbohydrates and 15-20 grams of fats, with a focus on whole real foods, I will go food shopping on Sundays and will eat a “whatever” meal on Friday night and Sunday morning”. The specificity aspect is also important for the measureable aspect.

Approach oriented

This means that you want to focus on what you want NOT on what you don’t want. The good thing is most people do set goals relating to what they want. This is important because we want our goals to pull us towards our desires. Overall, approach goals have many benefits and avoidance goals have the potential to lead to a host of negative emotional and behavioral outcomes (Kraus). So frame your goals in a way that focuses on the things you want.

Measurable

This aspect goes along with the specific and feedback aspects. Basically you need to have goals set up in a way that you can measure the behaviors or outcomes. This is why having specific goals is important. For example, for your exercise goal you could state something like this “I will exercise 3 days a week, for a total of 30 minutes each, with each session involving 10 minutes on the treadmill and 20 minutes of weight training (you would have a plan for this), and I plan on going to the gym (or workout at home) on Monday, Wednesday evenings and Saturday morning”. At the end of the week you will be able to measure your behaviors and see if you followed through with your plan. This is the feedback aspect.

Proximal/Distal

You want to set goals that are framed in the near future; weekly and monthly. These short-term goals are particularly important when it comes to things that are not very interesting to you (Reeve).

Although you typically want to focus on your proximal goals, it also seems helpful to have some distal goals as well (Reeve). What are you hoping to achieve in the next 6 months or year? These long-term goals can be less specific and more abstract than your proximal goals. Overall, focus on what you can do in the short-term but also have something bigger that you are striving towards in the long run.

Feedback

To know how we are doing, we need some type of feedback about our progress. This seems to be a crucial variable in making goals effective (Reeve). Feedback should be occur as close to the behavior as possible to have the strongest effect. But, in general, getting feedback on a daily or weekly basis is very helpful. Feedback is necessary to know if what you are doing is working. Again, specific and measurable aspects of goal setting are necessary in order to be able to give specific feedback.

Rewards

To reward or not reward, that is the question; my apologies to Shakespeare. But the research on the use of external rewards is complicated. An external reward, such as money, praise, promotion, etc. can help with motivation but it has the potential to decrease intrinsic motivation, particularly for things that you actually enjoy doing, but may not do often enough (Reeve). However, if you are trying to do things that you know you need to do to reach your goals but do not really enjoy the activities then setting up some external rewards can be helpful. In these instances external rewards, at least at first, maybe the first month or two of starting the new behavior could be useful. But, the external rewards are likely to lose their “motivational” punch after awhile. The best thing to do is find a way to cultivate an intrinsic reward from what you are doing, i.e., personal satisfaction that you have kicked some ass.

Identify potential obstacles

Finally, there is a need to make sure that you have laid out your plan; the when, where, and how. It is possible that there may be some obstacles related to these aspects. It is important to identify them and find ways around them (Kraus). For example, if you cannot go to the gym to workout (money, time, availability, etc.), find a way to exercise at home or go somewhere that is free, like a park to walk, do push-ups etc. The point here is that there are likely to be some challenges, but do your best to find creative ways to overcome them and don’t use them as excuses to not reach your goals.

There you have it, the 10 key aspects of setting goals that will work. Take the time to put this information into practice. Start now, not tomorrow. There is no reason to wait. There is nothing magical about tomorrow, or next Monday or the next month. Make the journey of life the best it can be.

References;

Koestner, R. et al (2002). Attaining personal goals: Self-concordance plus implementation intentions equals success. J Personality Social Psych; 83(1): 231-244.

Kraus, S. (2002). Psychological foundations of success. Change Plant Press. San Francisco.

Reeve, J. (2005). Understanding motivation and emotion. Hoboken, NJ. John Wiley & Sons.

Shilts, MK. et al (2004). Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: A review of the literature. Am J Health Promot; 19(2): 81-93.

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