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Given up on your New Year's goals and resolutions? Can goal-setting theories help?

This month I have been reflecting on the process of goal-setting.


January is the month for making plans for the upcoming year, setting goals and committing to New Year’s resolutions. Come February, a number of these good intentions have slipped, been dropped or even forgotten, and many people find that they are re-evaluating their goals. A number of surveys reported by various media (such as, Savanta ComRes, 2015; Haden, 2020) suggest that between a quarter and 80% of people have ditched their resolutions by February. There are numerous articles recommending techniques that help you to stick to your goals. Instead of offering further advice, I’m taking a look at some of the theories underlying goal-setting, and posing some questions to reflect on when you set or review your goals or resolutions. Some of these may resonate for you.

Goal-setting theory and SMART goals

One of the most influential theories in this area is goal-setting theory, which was developed by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham and validated over 25 years, both in experimental and work situations and across multiple settings and demographics (i.e. it’s been tested a lot!) It states that specific, challenging goals result in a higher level of task performance than goals that are vague or easy (Locke and Latham, 2006). It further sets out the conditions needed for successful goal attainment, which include clarity of the goal, the requisite ability to actually do it and the level of commitment. Commitment is, in turn, increased by the individual’s belief that they can successfully accomplish the task. One manifestation of goal-setting theory, often used within work contexts, SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely), provide a way to focus efforts and create clearly defined parameters.

Performance and learning goal orientation

Another framework that is useful for goal-setting is Carol Dweck’s theory of goal orientation (Dweck, 2006). The theory suggests that performance goal-oriented individuals focus on the outcome of the task and on demonstrating their aptitude. Those who are learning goal-orientated are, in contrast, focused on learning and increasing their level of competence. Studies have shown that the latter orientation influences motivation. The increased motivation of learning goal-oriented individuals results in greater effort, leading to higher performance.

Performance-approach and performance-avoidance achievement goals

One additional set of goal orientations to add to the mix are performance-approach achievement goals (trying to do well in relation to others) and performance-avoidance achievement goals (trying to avoid performing badly in relation to others). The latter approach has a negative impact on performance, while the former seems to be rather more complex and may result in enhanced performance while having some potentially less positive effects, such as reduced motivation (Elliot and Moller, 2003). Motivation is a key ingredient of successful goal attainment and high performance, and I'll share more on this topic in a future blog.

What works best?

It depends... I’m interested in the process of setting goals, as I don’t tend to set goals in the way that goal-setting theory suggests and I find the method of articulating SMART goals feels somewhat constraining. I relish a big picture vision and the unfurling of my goals in a way that satisfies my need for spontaneity and flexibility. This seems the antithesis to how goal-setting theory and SMART goals focus on specificity, and I find myself curious about my opposition to this way of setting my goals. I tend to gravitate more towards learning goals, setting goals that lead to an increase in my level of competence and help me to learn new skills. I also do occasionally make goals that are relative to the performance of others, despite not considering myself particularly competitive. It’s possible that I also set myself performance-avoidance goals without being aware of it, so I may be setting myself up for failure on these goals from the start.

How do you set goals?

Using these theories and frameworks, there are some questions that you may ask yourself as you review your goals and resolutions. Do SMART goals that have clear timeframes and benchmarks against which you can measure your progress help you to succeed? Do highly challenging goals increase your motivation? Can you evaluate the level of clarity and challenge to each of your goals and your ability to do the associated tasks? What is your level of commitment on a scale of 1 to 10? Are you someone who likes to show your competency at a task and feel rewarded when your skill is recognised? Alternatively, are you keen to increase your knowledge and skill level and feel a sense of accomplishment as a result? Does it depend on the task or context of the goal? Are you setting goals so that you don’t look bad in comparison to others or so that you can outdo someone else? These last two questions may be difficult to answer without some probing and questioning, and may be more commonly found in competitive work environments, such as in sales or fundraising (the sector that I worked in for many years), where individual metrics are set.


Coaching is a goal-focused process with the aim of helping individuals to realise their greater potential. If you are finding that you are not successful at attaining your goals (or even if you are unsure about what goals you wish to pursue), a coaching conversation may undercover some of the barriers and help you to reframe your way of thinking and how you set goals. If you'd like to discuss this further, please get in touch.


Next Time:

The relationship between motivation and successful goal attainment will be explored.


Feedback Please:

I welcome thoughts and feedback on this month’s reflections. Thank you!


 

References:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Random House.


Elliot, A. J. and Moller, A. C. (2003). Performance-approach goals: Good or bad forms of regulation? International journal of educational research, 39 (4-5), 339-356.


Haden, J. (2020). A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year's Resolutions Will Be Abandoned on January 19: How to Create New Habits That Actually Stick, Inc., [Online]. Available from: https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/a-study-of-800-million-activities-predicts-most-new-years-resolutions-will-be-abandoned-on-january-19-how-you-cancreate-new-habits-that-actually-stick.html [Accessed 7 Feb 2022].


Locke, E. A. and Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science: a Journal of the American Psychological Society, 15 (5), 265-268.


Savanta ComRes (2015) BUPA New Year Resolution Survey. London: Savanta ComRes.

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