We all want something, whether it’s our ideal job, that ultimate adventure, or a loving family of our own.
Our dreams may be small, or they may be humongous, but most of us know that setting goals is a brilliant first step to achieving them.
But...did you know that the way we set our goals can affect our chances of achieving them? Or...why we even want certain things in the first place?
This article explores the psychology behind goal-setting and what makes us tick. Read on for our top goal-setting tips and exercises, so that you can set more motivational goals and improve your own likelihood of success.
Why Set Goals?
There are a few practical reasons to set goals, but the real ‘why’ of goal-setting comes down to happiness.
We want things, experiences, and trophies (of course) but according to ancient philosophers, it may in fact be the very act of striving for something that may also be very, very central to a human sense of fulfillment.
We can look really briefly at the concept of eudaimonia to understand this further (Ameriks & Clarke, 2000).
Eudaimonia translates loosely into “welfare” or “flourishing.” Originally discussed by Aristotle, it posits that wellbeing (Deci & Ryan, 2008):“...is not so much an outcome or end state as it is a process of fulfilling or realizing one’s daimon [unconscious] or true nature.”
By setting meaningful goals then, we:
Create plans for realizing good things for ourselves, but we also
Give ourselves the joy of the journey—the rational pursuit of something worthwhile, and which we must apply our unique strengths to accomplish.
The Practical Side of Goal-Setting
So, very roughly, we pursue goals as part of a ‘eudaimonic’ life. Doing so helps us find more meaning and purpose (Huta & Waterman, 2014).
Goal-setting has practical benefits, too. Rather than embark on our mission without a plan, taking the time to clarify our direction helps us find resources, brainstorm strategies, and channel our efforts.
More specifically, setting goals helps us (Latham, 2004):
Focus our attention on goal-directed activities
Find the energy to stay on track
Persist in our efforts, and
Motivate ourselves along the way.
As we focus our efforts on the things we want to achieve, we find new ways to apply our unique strengths, and this in turn gives our self-confidence a boost while teaching us new things.
How to Do It Effectively
Ready to set some motivational goals? Let’s look at some expert tips on goal-setting.
According to Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser, & Deci (1996), all goals are not created equal; for maximum personal effectiveness, persistence, and enjoyment of the whole journey, we need to consider what’s driving us—intrinsic or extrinsic factors (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
When we pursue extrinsic factors, such as money, status, and other material rewards, we are driven by extrinsic motivation.
Some examples of extrinsically motivating goals include:
Getting promoted for the higher pay (perhaps your bills increased)
Learning to drive (to get places), or
Paying the rent (to avoid eviction).
If we pursue intrinsic rewards, like the enjoyment, interest, or satisfaction of the journey, we’re self-driven or intrinsically motivated.
In contrast to extrinsically motivating goals, a few samples of intrinsically motivating goals are:
Getting promoted (because you love your work)
Learning to drive (for the sense of accomplishment), or
Learning a new language (because you find etymology fascinating).
Both types of motivation are important in accomplishing our ambitions, but intrinsic goals have been linked to greater happiness, life satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment as we strive toward them (Ryan et al., 1999; Niemiec et al., 2009).
Taking the time to think about why you’re setting your goals in the first place, andwhatconsequences you hope to achieve is, therefore, an important step to take before you put pen to paper.
6 Goal-Setting Tips
Here are some practical tips based on these principles to help you set effective goals:
Consider the extent to which your goals are aligned with your long-term interests, passions, and values. The greater the alignment, the more intrinsically motivating they will be (Sheldon & Eliot, 1999).
Set ‘approach’ goals (things you don’t have but want) rather than ‘avoidance’ goals (things you have, but don’t want) (Coats, Janoff-Bulman & Alpert, 1996)
Make your goal explicit, with visible reminders like your wristband
Break down your goal into ‘sub-goals’ or smaller steps
Plan out your journey (here, you might like to use some kind of framework like S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting), and
Commit to your goals with abehavioral self-contract (i.e. formalize it all by writing down your goal, when you want to achieve it by, and your signature) (Kirschenbaum & Flanery, 1984).
2 Goal-Setting Exercises To Try
Maybe you’ve clarified what you want to achieve and planned your journey already.
If that’s the case, these two exercises can help you overcome obstacles along the way and maintain motivation to stay the course.
Even the best-laid plans can be thwarted, despite our very strong intentions to succeed.
Using “If-Then” planning, or creatingimplementation intentions,can help you solidify what you will do if obstacles come between you and your goals (Gollwitzer, 1999).
You simply state your intention, or goal, in explicit terms, and use this formula to create an implementation intention:
“If X happens, then I will do Y.”
If you have the explicit intention of speaking publicly at a conference, an example implementation intention might be: “If I feel queasy with nerves, then I will practice deep breathing to feel better.”
Mental imagery techniques can be a great way to build your motivation and plan your way forward.
There are many free goal visualization meditations you can listen to online, but most of them follow a simple structure (Greater Good In Action, n.d.):
Find a peaceful place where you won’t be disturbed
Write down the goal you want to accomplish, and
List the possible pathways that can get you there.
Give yourself a quiet hour or half-hour to close your eyes and imagine the pathways you’ve come up with.
Try to immerse yourself completely in your visualization:What will each step feel like? How will you know when you’ve accomplished your goal? What will success feel like? What will you tell yourself when you win?
Over To You
Setting the right goals for yourself is the first step to achieving them, but it’s a critical one all the same.
Accepting the inevitability of challenges and staying driven to overcome them is just as important if you’re in it to win it. Check out our range of wristbands to pick out a motivational mantra for yourself, and you’ll be well on your way to success.
About The Author Catherine Moore
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
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Ryan, R.M., Chirkov, V.I., Little, T.D., Sheldon, K.M., Timoshina, E., & Deci, E.L. (1999). The American dream in Russia: Extrinsic aspirations and well-being in two cultures.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1509-1524.
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