How to Set Goals

Goals can positively impact task performance (e.g. Latham and Locke, 2002).

According to goal-setting theory, goals are inherently rooted in biology and have aided us in our survival as a species throughout millennia (Locke & Latham, 1990a).

This theory assumes that difficult yet specific goals lead to higher performance compared to easy or vague goals like “just do your best” (e.g. Locke and Latham, 2013).

“Just doing your best” won’t cut it.

You need goals – why?

The 4 mechanisms that affect goal performance

According to goal-setting theory, there are four mechanisms through which goals affect performance.

Goals give direction

Firstly, goals provide direction in an individual’s efforts.

They concentrate these efforts and focus them towards goal-relevant activity and away from goal-irrelevant activity.

Goals energise

Secondly, goals have the ability to energise.

Unlike low goals, high goals can energise an individual to expend more effort in achieving a desired outcome.

Higher goals induce greater effort, while low goals induce lesser effort.

Goals influence effort

Thirdly, goals influence the level of effort one is willing to exert in pursuing an outcome.

Goals can either help achieve difficult tasks in short, intense bursts of effort or help achieve less challenging tasks over a longer period of time with much less effort.

Goals can prime you

Lastly, goals can prime an individual for appropriate cognitive responses as well as for previous knowledge and skills on how to best handle a situation in which we may be in.

How to set goals

Consider the S.M.A.R.T model as a useful framework that delineates five criteria that can optimise the process of goal achievement (Doran, 1981).

Particular letters of the acronym stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound and describe the criteria for successful goal setting.


Firstly, the more specific and detailed a goal is, the more likely the individual will be successful in achieving it.


Secondly, a measurable goal (e.g. using metrics) is necessary in gauging the level of progress made in achieving the final outcome.


Thirdly, a goal must be reasonably attainable but not too challenging nor difficult to achieve.

This is important as an unattainable goal can decrease self-efficacy in turn lowering the likelihood that an individual will be able to develop solutions to tackle a task at hand (Latham, Winters, and Locke, 1994).


Fourthly, a goal must be realistic.

If it isn’t, how are you going to achieve it?


Finally, time-bound describes the process of setting checkpoints and/or deadlines as a means to successfully goal realisation.

How to make sure you follow through on your goals

Your goals should be self-set

Research suggests that employees that generated self-set goals formed more ambitious goals and showed higher performance in achieving them compared to employees that had goals merely assigned to them (Latham, Mitchell, and Dossett, 1978).

Publicly commit to your goals

Moreover, it was found that publicly committing to said goals enhanced employee commitment in both actively pursuing and achieving those goals (Hollenbeck, Williams, and Klein, 1989).

Hollenbeck and colleagues assume that the effectiveness of publicly announced goals lies in an individual’s need to behave in accordance with such promises.

It also makes the whole thing a matter of integrity in both your own eyes and the eyes of others.

This is in line with the behavioural economics principle called Ego (Dolan et al., 2010). People want to project a favourable image of themselves to their peers and act in line with the self-image they aspire to.

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