Add some science to your goal setting

Posted on

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade! It seems to have become an annual tradition that I write something about goal setting and goal achievement to kick start the year. For 2020, here is an overview on what the current science says about goal setting.

What is a goal?

Quite simply, a goal is a target, an aim, or an objective. It is something you want to do. It is not a wish or a need, but rather a more concrete entity that results from the conscious consideration of wishes and needs. Often the goal is articulated or written, but it can also be kept in mind without being externalized. Just having a goal is believed to impact our actions. We become energized and motivated, and we focus more on activities that are relevant to the goal.

Does goal setting work?

Yes. A research group put together the results from 141 studies, and found that just setting a goal has a positive impact on several different types of lifestyle changes, even when other behaviour change methods were taken into account. Psychologists, rehabilitation professionals, and social workers have long viewed goal setting as a key component to behavioural change, the foundational piece upon which the success of the rest of a program builds.

Are all goals equally effective?

No. Goals are more effective when they are specific, challenging, include performance feedback, and are monitored.

Internet searches about goal setting are likely to turn up the acronym SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. While there are aspects of SMART goal setting that may be helpful, there are issues with this system. In particular, the Attainable and Realistic pieces tend to make us diminish our goals. As mentioned above, there is good research evidence that goals should be challenging; attainable and realistic can be at odds with that, depending on how one defines those terms. So –  do set specific and timely goals, do consider how you will know when it is achieved, and do make the goal one that will challenge you.

As discussed in both the 2018 and 2019 posts, monitoring goal progress is important because it provides an opportunity to check progress and get feedback (either self-feedback or from an outside source). If things are not moving along as hoped, action plans can be changed and then re-reviewed at the next checkpoint.

When checking in on goal progress, focus on whether or not the action plan was implemented, and if it was implemented, whether or not it is working. If the plan was NOT implemented, this requires some thought as to why not, and whether it is still workable. If the plan was implemented but is not working, it needs some tweaking, or perhaps a whole new plan. Note the emphasis is on the evaluation of the plan, not the goal itself. If we have not achieved our goal, the problem is with our plan, not our ability to achieve the goal. During this evaluation phase, keeping the emphasis on the action plan is important for building and maintaining good self-efficacy – that is, our belief in our ability to do a specific thing. Also attributing lack of success to the plan allows us to keep a high level of motivation and avoid nasty self-doubting “I cannot” thoughts.

There is a ton of research looking at goal setting as it specifically relates to increasing physical activity, and the general conclusion is that, as with other behaviours, just the act of goal-setting has a positive effect on physical activity. And, as with other behaviours, research suggests that our performance is better when we add in some self-regulation pieces such as planning and monitoring. One interesting study found that a group using an electronic activity monitoring device plus a goal, but without additional self-regulation strategies, was less likely to increase physical activity than a group that used the device, the goal, and the self-regulation strategies.

Happy New Year’s Day Goal Setting

Please give it a try! Set some specific, challenging goals for yourself for 2020, set up an action plan, and a monitoring system. When you check-in, remember that you can achieve your goals. Attribute slow progress to your plans rather than your abilities –  and then change the plans that are not working.

Send it!