The Science of Setting and Achieving Goals

While it’s true that there is alot of fluff and opinion about “setting goals”, it’s also true that a lot of legitimate studies and scientific evidence have been compiled over the years to help determine the truth about what really works. Presenting that information is one of the key aims of this website.

So how do we define goal setting? Goal-setting theory focuses on the relationship between conscious performance goals and task performance …. what we want to achieve, and performing the actions to accomplish it. Whether it’s weight loss, academic performance, job performance, anything you want to accomplish that involves actions that are within your control is the right subject for setting goals.

A goal is defined as:

    The object or aim of an action.

Simple enough. Goal theory proposes that goals affect performance primarily through four mechanisms:

  • Goals serve as a directive function in that they direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant activities (Locke & Bryan, 1969);
  • Goals serve an energizing function;
  • Goals affect persistence; and
  • Goals affect action indirectly by leading to the discovery and use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies (Wood & Locke, 1990).

The theory further suggests that goal setting and task performance, among other factors, is mediated by goal commitment, self-efficacy, and feedback (Locke & Latham, 2002).

High commitment to goals is attained when the individual is convinced that the goal is important and the goal is attainable. Participation in goal setting and self-determined goals have been found to be effective in gaining goal commitment (Latham, Winters, & Locke, 1994).

People are most likely to believe they can attain a goal when they believe that it is within their capacity. In other words, they develop self-efficacy, that is, task-specific confidence in goal accomplishment (Bandura, 1986).

For people to pursue goals effectively, they also need feedback as a means of checking or tracking their progress toward the goal. Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal (Locke, 1996). In addition, feedback is most effective in motivating improved performance when it is used to set goals (Locke & Latham, 1990).

Summary of key points: