Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Goal setting

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Goal setting:
Effective goal setting for achieving success


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"To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe."
- Anatole France

Eric wants a new job. He has been working in the same job for five years, day in, day out, on a never-ending treadmill of repetition. Five years ago, he applied for his job because of the opportunity it offered for promotion. His intention was to start small, and slowly make his way up the ranks until he reached the top. Once there, he would be wealthy, happy, and satisfied with his job. Yet in five years, Eric hasn’t managed to upgrade his desk chair let alone his position. Eric is good at his job, but lately it feels like he spends more time complaining about work than actually working.

Then there is Sarah. Sarah has been working for the same company as Eric for the past four years. They started at the same level, but she has had a number of promotions in that time. And now, Sarah is aiming to be promoted to the position of Eric’s boss.

So why are some people more successful than others? Why do some people seem to be talking about something one minute, and actually doing it the next? Often, people who are motivated, successful and organised have one thing in common; they set goals.

Why set goals?

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A number of studies have been conducted to examine the efficacy and success of goal setting on task performance and achievement. It appears that individuals who set goals and have specific plans often have higher rates of performance and accomplishment than those who don’t (Locke, Shaw, Sari and Latham, 1981). An early study conducted by Locke and colleagues in 1981 found that in 90% of cases, participants engaging in difficult and challenging goals reported significantly higher task performance rates than those who engaged in goals that were deemed “easy”, or no goals at all (Locke et al., 1981). The favourable findings in regard to goal setting do not just apply to individuals. A study conducted in 2011 by Kleingeld and colleagues looked at the effect of goal setting on performance in a group setting and discovered that when facing difficult tasks, including physical and intellectual challenges, groups showed higher rates of performance when group goals had been set (Kleingeld, van Mierlo and Arends, 2011).

Setting goals allows us to direct our attention to achieving important and desirable outcomes, and promotes sustainable effort and motivation. Creating realistic, productive strategies enables us to tackle challenging goals with a sense of preparation and confidence, and with a greater chance of achieving it. In some cases, accomplishment obtained from achieving set goals can provide more satisfaction than the task itself (Reeve, 2009).

Common reasons for goal setting

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People set goals for a number of reasons. As we will learn, the main purpose of goal setting is to help people move closer to their ideal state from their current state, and reduce the discomfort caused by the discrepancy between (Reeve, 2009).
Here are some of the main areas in which people set goals:

Health and Fitness
Study and education
Weight loss
Personal achievement such as overcoming fear
Smoking cessation

Goals can be short term or long term based on the effort required to achieve them, and the impact they have on life once achieved, however effective goal setting skills can be useful for goals of any type.


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Goal setting theory

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Goal setting theory was developed by Locke and Latham (2002), two organizational psychologists who conducted a number of studies observing the effects of planning and organising on planned performance. The basic goal setting theory premise is that people are more likely to action more effective performance rates on tasks that are specific and challenging as opposed to tasks that are non-specific and easy to complete (Kleingeld, van Mierlo and Arends, 2011). Specific and difficult tasks tend to yield better performance results for a number of reasons. One reason is that they encourage the development and implementation of strategies and prompt the individual to view the task from all sides in a problem solving manner. Another reason is that having specific set tasks generally results in increased and persistent motivation and effort toward that task. A third reason that specific and set goals show enhanced performance rates is that attention is directed toward the challenging task, and effort expended in order to complete it effectively and promptly (Kliengeld, van Mierlo and Arends, 2011; Locke and Latham, 2002).

Goal setting theory takes into account a number of factors on which effective goal setting relies. These include commitment to the completion of the goal, goal complexity, and feedback throughout the goal attaining process (Kliengeld, va Mierlo and Arends, 2011). Additionally, self-efficacy, past performance, ability and incentives, both intrinsic and extrinsic, are also factors in the process of the initial goal choice, and any subsequent planning and strategising done in an effort to attain the goal (Locke and Latham, 2002; Reeve, 2009).

Corrective motivation

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Corrective motivation (Reeve, 2009) occurs when discrepancy exists between a person's present state and ideal state, or where they currently are and where they want to be. It is the drive that encourages people to change, or at least want to change, in an effort to reduce the discrepancy between these two selves. Recognising and experiencing discrepancy between actual and ideal states results in motivation to move toward the ideal state by changing the present state.

Motivation to change is generally not a result of aiming to achieve an ideal state, in fact, motivation to change is predominantly fuelled by the discrepancy between states. (Reeve, 2009)


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There are two types of discrepancy: discrepancy reduction and discrepancy creation.

Discrepancy reduction
Discrepancy reduction is a response to negative information from the feedback system. It's purpose is responding to feedback that signifies a discrepancy between the ideal and actual states, and as the name implies, aims to reduce this. Discrepancy reduction is viewed as plan-based corrective motivation (Reeve, 2009).

Discrepancy creation
Discrepancy creation is is a proactive approach to goal setting and revolves in contrast to the feedback system in what Reeve (2002) has labelled the “feed-forward” system. Essentially, it is the process of looking forward and creating plansto alleviate discrepancy between the actual state and ideal future state. It utilises corrective motivation to set goals aiming to accomplish positive change and growth toward the ideal state.

Self-discrepancy theory

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Self-discrepancy theory suggests that we as humans have three types of self-schema that affect the way we view ourselves, and our behaviour (Higgins, 1987, as cited in Vaughan and Hogg, 2010). These three selves are:

1) Actual self - the way we currently are, exactly as ourselves;
2) Ideal self - the way we would like to be; and
3)Ought self - the way we think we should be.

The ideal self and the ought self act as guides for behaviour in that they are both striving to improve upon the actual self. The ideal self is the person that we would like to be in order to satisfy our own fulfilment and positive view of ourself, and the ought self is the person that we think we should be based on social roles and obligations we are aware of.

When there is discrepancy between either our actual and ideal selves, or our actual and our ought selves, we feel a sense of discomfort, dejection or irritation. This then provides motivation to reduce the discrepancy between the selves, and our goal becomes to match our actual self and closely as possible with either our ideal self, or our ought self, depending on the situation.

Regulatory focus theory

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Building on from self-discrepancy theory, Higgins then developed regulatory focus theory to explain what occurs when we are trying to reduce self-discrepancy, and what approach can be taken in the process. The theory consists of two regulation systems, the prevention system and the promotion system. In basic terms, the theory suggests that we regulate our actions based on the type of task at hand (Higgins, 1997 as cited in Herman, and Reiter-Palmon, 2011).

The prevention system:
The prevention system is based on an avoidance strategy, and used when trying to fulfill obligations associated with our ought self.

If Eric took a prevention approach in his goal setting, he might begin to complete all of his current job requirements in an effort to avoid failure in his position, but not make an effort to find new challenges to overcome that may propel him upward.

The promotion system:
The promotion system is based on an approach strategy in which a proactive approach is taken in order to attain goals associated with our ideal self.

If Eric took a promotion approach in his goal setting, he might begin to look for extra tasks at work to actively seek out challenges and new situations and focus on improving himself beyond his current position.

Performance feedback

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An extremely important aspect of goal setting and task performance is performance feedback (Erez, 1977; as cited in Reeve, 2009). Feedback provides not only the information required to assess progress, but it also fosters a sense of interest and importance in the task. Without feedback, a sprinter with a goal of running one hundred metres in 10 seconds would have no information to track their progress, and as a result they would most likely experience a sense of dissatisfaction with the process of aiming toward their goal (Reeve, 2009). Feedback and performance have a reciprocal relationship in which the performance induces the feedback, which in turn induces the performance (Krenn, Würth, and Hergovich, 2013).

Social cognitive theory of self-regulation

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Albert Bandura’s theory of self-regulation is one of five sub-theories imbedded within social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1991), and is closely related to goal setting. Self-regulation theory explains the internal self-reflective abilities that humans possess, which allow us to exercise control over our thoughts and actions. This then motivates us to behave either in alignment with, or in contrast to, our social situations. Self-regulation quite literally is the phenomenon of regulating our thoughts and consequential behaviour through self-monitoring, self-diagnosing and self-motivating (Mann, 2013; Herman, 2011). Additionally, through self-regulation, we are able to develop personal standards through a simultaneous flow of social comparison and internal regulation (Bandura, 1991). Bandura’s cognitive theory of self-regulation recognises and encourages both forethought and internal reflection, and is a key factor in self-directed change.

Theory of reasoned action/theory of planned behaviour

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Theory of reasoned action is a predictive model that suggests that a person's behaviour is determined by their intention to perform that behaviour (Azjen, 1991). The theory of planned behaviour, also developed by Azjen (1991), builds on the theory of reasoned action by factoring in a vital component of behaviour; behavioural control. A need for improvement was identified when it became apparent that despite the fact that, according to the theory of reasoned action, intention to behave in a particular way is a good predictor of behaviour, actual and perceived behavioural control can at times interfere with intention (Vallerand, Deshaies, Cuerrier, Pelletier, and Mongeau, 1992).

Achieving success

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SMART goals

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When setting goals, it is important to create a clear, accurate picture of exactly what it is that you’re aiming to achieve. A handy acronym that is widely used in goal setting after Locke’s 1990 publication, is the SMART approach.

S – Specific.
“I want to be fit” or “I want to earn more money” are often examples of goals that lots of people would like to achieve, but they aren't specific. What will you be able to do when you're fit? How much money would you like to earn? Clarify and articulate exactly what you want to achieve, and how you will know when you have achieved it. Once you have decided on your specific goals, change the way they are phrased, and declare your goals in present tense. Speaking as though you have already achieved your goal is vital as it assumes action. If you phrase your goal as wanting something, technically you have already achieved it because you already want it! Phrase your goals as your reality and be confident that they will become your reality.

M – Measureable.
It is extremely important that your goals are measurable. Without a way of measuring your goal, you will not be able to measure your progress and as a result, you will neither know how far you have come, nor how far you have to go. What will you be able to track during the process of achieving your goal? Will you be able to measure accurate indicators of productivity, or counter-productivity?

A – Achievable.
Unfortunately, not all goals are achievable. Wanting to be younger, for example, is probably not an achievable goal (though many of us would like it to be!). Ensure your goal is something that you can actually achieve. But remember, just because something is challenging, doesn't mean it is not achievable.

R - Realistic.
In addition to setting achievable goals, you need to make sure your goals are realistic. Sure, becoming an Olympic gymnast at the age of 45 may very well be achievable through extreme training, dedication and physical conditioning, but is it realistic? Even though some goals are achievable, they aren't always realistic. Don't set yourself up to fail; be realistic, but believe in your capability.

T- Time-based.
Putting a time frame on your goal will have a number of effects. Firstly, it will inspire action. Knowing that you have a limited amount of time to attain your goal will motivate you to get into action right away and start working toward it. It will also help with creating a specific goal. For example, your goal may be to save $10,000, but if you don't specify a time frame in which you would like to achieve your goal, you could spend the next 15 years earning small amounts that add up to $10,000 and not realise that you have achieved your goal. And lastly, it helps with motivation by creating the knowledge that after a certain period of time, your hard work will have paid off. You will be motivated to work toward your goal knowing that it will be worth it in the end, because you'll know exactly when the end will be.

So, here is an example.

Eric wants to earn more money, challenge himself at work and develop his workplace skills more. He wants to experience greater work satisfaction. Eric wants to achieve that promotion he had his sights set on a few years ago. So Eric decides to set a SMART goal. He sits down with a pen and paper and starts to write down his goal.
“In August, 2014, I am the newly promoted office manager.”

Is it specific? Yes. Eric has specified exactly what his goal is – to be promoted to office manager. Is it Measurable? Yes. Because office manager is a specific position, Eric will be able to measure when he has achieved his goal, and how close or far he is from promotion. Is it achievable? Yes. Eric is in a position where promotion to office manager is achievable. Is it realistic? Yes. If Eric is dedicated, focused and organised, being promoted to office manager is a realistic goal. Is it time-based? Yes. Eric has specified that he would like to be promoted by August 2014.

Once Eric has set his main goal, he then decides to write a list of all of the smaller goals within his promotion goal that he will need to achieve, and decides to turn these into SMART goals too.

Eric now feels confident, motivated and prepared!

Ten goal setting tips

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1) Break it down.
Running a 42km marathon may seem completely impossible and out of reach when you look at it as a basic goal. But in actual fact, it’s likely that if broken down, running a marathon could be achievable within a matter of time with increased fitness through training. Even though the marathon is your overall goal, there will be a number of actions required to achieve this. Break down these actions and turn them into sub-goals.

2) Incentivise.
Be clear about what your sub-goals are, and reward yourself as you go. It can feel tedious working on a series of smaller tasks when you are aiming for a much bigger accomplishment, so keep yourself on track with small incentives.

3) Focus.
Hone in on what you really want to achieve, and why. Sometimes we can get lost in the mechanics of planning and lose sight of what we really want out of it.

4) Start small.
Not all goals have to be life changing, idealistic aspirations that take years of hard work and discipline. Setting yourself smaller goals will help to build confidence as you make smaller achievements. These could add up to a larger goal, or just be considered achievements on their own.

5) Choose your system.
Remember regulatory focus theory? Will you choose prevention or promotion?

6) Celebrate every win.
As mentioned, within most goals will be a series of smaller goals. Recognise your success in every area and fuel your motivation to keep going. If things don’t pan out exactly as you had planned, step back and look at what did work, and what you learned from what didn’t. Sometimes, the mere act of setting and planning a goal is an achievement worth recognising!

7) Be productive!
Procrastination will not get you anywhere, so don’t put off tasks. Write a to-do list, prioritise the tasks, and complete the hardest first. Do this every day. You’ll feel a wonderful sense of satisfaction that will continue throughout your day, and motivate you to complete a number of other tasks.

8) Don’t be scared.
If you effectively plan and strategise, you will know exactly what you need to do to accomplish your goal. It may seem daunting at first, but by setting yourself challenging goals, you’re bound to achieve something in the process – even if it isn’t quite what you expected. If you don’t quite reach your goal, you’ll know exactly how much you missed by, and you can work on it next time. Don’t be afraid to miss your targets, every attempt is an achievement.

9) List, list, list.
No matter what stage you are at in the process of achieving your goal, writing lists can be an extremely helpful organisational tool.

10) Be kind to yourself.
Putting too much pressure on yourself will only cause stress and anxiety, and ultimately is likely to result in feelings of defeat. If a friend was feeling like a failure after not quite achieving a goal, you would most likely be supportive and understanding, and encourage them to try again. So treat yourself like a friend and be kind, even when you tried your best and missed out.


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Setting goals is not just about deciding that you want something, or want to be something, and trying a few things out to achieve it. There's a little more to it than that. In fact, when setting goals, the more specific and challenging the task is, the more likely you are to perform better (Locke and Latham, 2002). Setting goals to achieve success requires thought, planning, organisation and dedication, but it doesn’t have to be a lengthy, involved, and overwhelming process. With some knowledge of the topic, handy hints and effective strategies, goal setting can become a part of everyday life, and so can success.

See also

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Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–211

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall.

Herman, A., & Reiter-Palmon, R. (2011). The effect of regulatory focus on idea generation and idea evaluation. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, 5(1), 13-20. doi:10.1037/a0018587

Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1289-1304. doi:10.1037/a0024315
Krenn, B., Würth, S., & Hergovich, A. (2013). The impact of feedback on goal setting and task performance: Testing the feedback intervention theory. Swiss Journal Of Psychology/Schweizerische Zeitschrift Für Psychologie/Revue Suisse De Psychologie,72(2), 79-89. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000101

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), 705-717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705

Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125-152. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.1.125

Mann, T., de Ridder, D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Self-regulation of health behavior: Social psychological approaches to goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32(5), 487-498. doi:10.1037/a0028533

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Vallerand, R. J., Deshaies, P., Cuerrier, J., Pelletier, L. G., & Mongeau, C. (1992). Ajzen and Fishbein's theory of reasoned action as applied to moral behavior: A confirmatory analysis. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 62(1), 98-109. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.62.1.98

Vaughan, G. M., & Hogg, M. A. (2010). Essentials of social psychology. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Publishing.

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