Five goal-setting principles

Using goals to boost performance is a technique that has been widely recommended in business, education, and self-improvement literature for decades. When we decide to try and improve our own lives, we often begin by setting goals for ourselves. However, vague goals such as “I want to get fit” or “I want to be happy” are strongly correlated with depression. Such goals serve only to imply that we do not have what we want, and don’t provide a way to usefully measure our success.

Studies have shown that effective goals tend to follow five principles:

  1. High Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Regular Feedback
  5. Acknowledgement of Task Complexity

Set goals with high clarity

Clear and specific goals are easy to measure and provide information about how to achieve them. For example, “I want to get fit” is a goal without clarity. “I want to go running twice this week” is a goal that calls for a specific action and has a clear criteria for success.

To set a goal with clarity, you can think about what your overall goal is, and then use the smaller parts method to discover the specific, clear goals that lead towards it.

Set goals that challenge you

Goals that are too easy also tend be boring. Challenging goals spark our interest, and boost the satisfaction we feel when we achieve them. However, overly difficult goals can encourage us to cheat, lie to ourselves, or give up completely when we do not reach their targets.

Make sure your goals are challenging in the right way. For example, if you have never run before in your life, a performance goal such as “I want to run 10 miles” is probably inappropriate. However, “I want to go running twice this week” is a goal that rewards taking part in the activity itself and allows you to feel satisfied with whatever distance you were able to complete.

Set goals that engage your commitment

Setting a goal to which we are not committed is pointless and degrades our overall motivation to improve ourselves. We might read online that meditation is a proven and effective method to reduce stress and increase self-acceptance, but if mediation is not something that appeals to us then it’s clearly not going to be useful as one of our goals.

There are many different approaches to self-improvement. Don’t force yourself to commit to activities that you don’t like. Instead, choose goals that make you want to commit to them.

Set goals that encourage regular feedback

There is little reason to set goals for ourselves if we do not take the time to reflect on our progress towards them. Ideally, a goal should have a time limitation built into it. For example, the goal “I want to run twice this week” encourages us to evaluate our progress after 7 days have passed.

Schedule time to look back on your progress and don’t be afraid to modify goals that are proving ineffective.

Set goals that acknowledge task complexity

Self-improvement is a complex task which often comes with complex goals. However, pushing ourselves too hard by setting multiple difficult goals can cause us to become easily frustrated.

Break down difficult goals into smaller sub-goals, and give yourself plenty of time to complete them. Remember to re-evaluate if you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed.

Finally, keep it simple

By following these five principles, you can create goals that boost your performance in many different areas of your life. However, it is important to remember that too many goals, or goals that are too difficult, can actually reduce your motivation.

Long-term changes happen gradually, so it is best to introduce new goals gradually. Bear in mind your overall intentions when pursing short-term goals. For example, if you succeed at your goal to go running twice a week, but afterwards you feast on large amounts of fast food, you probably aren’t succeeding at your goal of getting fitter.

Perhaps a good first goal might be, “I want to set effective goals for myself each week”.


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