The Science of Effective Goal Setting | College of Executive Coaching
Coaching Article

The Science of Effective Goal Setting

By Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., MCC

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As I write this article, we are exactly one month into the New Year and I'll make a prediction about your New Years' resolutions—unfortunately most of you are failing. Research from the University of Scranton published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that only 8% of people are successful in achieving their New Year resolutions.

So what can you and your clients do to beat the odds on achieving goals?

The Science of Effective Goal Setting

The Science of Goal Setting Theory

Goal setting as a means for bringing about change and improved performance is not a new idea. Over 2,300 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about four causes of change and one of the causes he identified was what he called the final causes—an exploration into why things came about. Aristotle identified the final cause as one where the change happens as the result of a defined purpose or end goal. His main idea about goals was that purpose, or the end result, is one of the most powerful catalysts for change.

It wasn't until 1935 that the first empirical studies of goal setting were conducted by the British philosopher, Cecil Alec Mace. Cecil Alec Mace challenged the widely held idea that workers are primarily incentivized by money and found that people are also motivated by the accomplishment of goals.

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The 5 Scientific Principles of Effective Goal Setting

Sir Edmund Hilary, the first person to climb Mt. Everest, said, “You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.”

The father of modern goal setting theory is Dr. Edwin Locke, who expanded upon the work of Cecil Alec Mace and described his findings on goal setting in the 1968 paper, “Towards a theory of task motivation and incentives”. This research paper laid the foundation for modern goal setting theory.

Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham co-researched the theory of goal setting. Their joint research identified the following five principles of effective goal setting.

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Feedback
  5. Task complexity

Their research showed that the achievement of our goals is directly related to the extent that these five principles are present. In this article we will focus on the first two principles—clarity and challenge.

Set Clear and Specific Goals

Unclear goals are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective goal setting and performance. Effective goals are clear and specific.

Clarity is about knowing exactly what you are trying to achieve and by when. A specific goal means that it we are able to measure the goal's outcomes. When a goal is vague, such as lose some weight, it is not as motivating or as easy to achieve as this more specific, clear goal: “to lose 10 pounds in the next six months“. In this example, the specific, clear goal is measurable and time-bound. Measurable goals help you focus your efforts.

Zig Ziglar, author of 33 books, including the bestseller, See You at the Top, which sold two million copies said, “A goal properly set is halfway reached.”

Clear goals focus your attention. When goals are clear, tasks and activities are easier to identify. Clear and specific goals result in higher performance. This is because measurable goals are more effective at guiding action and behavior.

Setting clear and specific goals is the important first step for effective goal setting and represent the first letter of the SMART goal acronym—Specific. The SMART goal acronym, originally described in 1981 by George Doran, has been defined slightly differently by various authors but I prefer, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Set Challenging Goals

Michelangelo said, “The greater danger for most of us isn't that our aim is too high and miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Clear goals are important, but it is also just as important to set challenging goals. Research by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham found that people are motivated by challenging goals. When goals are challenging and specific, people will work harder to achieve their goals. People don't put forward their best efforts when goals are easy.

Research shows that difficult and challenging goals inspire increased performance, as effort is directly related to the difficultly of the goal. People believe that achieving difficult goals is more rewarding and more satisfying. The more difficult the goal, the more effort you will put in so difficult and challenging goals prompt people to achieve higher performance.

Ideally goal setting requires a careful balance to ensure the right degree of challenge. Goals that are either too easy or too difficult negatively affect motivation and decrease performance. The highest level of motivation is achieved when goals are significantly challenging, but no so challenging that they are likely unattainable.

When you next set goals for yourself or when you are helping your clients set goals, are you ensuring they are challenging enough, yet realistic—difficult yet attainable?

In our next article we will present best in class coaching questions paired with each element of the SMART Goal model.

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