The Technical Definition
Goal-setting theory refers to the effects of setting goals on subsequent performance. Researcher Edwin Locke found that individuals who set specific, difficult goals performed better than those who set general, easy goals. Locke proposed five basic principles of goal-setting: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.
Huh? What does that mean?
One of the most effective ways to stay motivated is to set goals for yourself. However, the type and quality of goals you set affects how well they will work.
Imagine you are 30 pounds overweight and want to drop some extra weight. When setting your goal, you have several options. You could say, “I want to lose weight within the next year. I will go on a diet to lose the weight.” This goal is pretty vague and poorly defined; you haven’t specified how much weight you want to lose or what concrete steps you will take to lose it.
Alternatively, you could say, “I want to lose two pounds a week for the next four months. I will exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days per week. I will also change my diet to include three servings of fruits and vegetables as well as whole-grain products. I will also limit myself to eating out just one day per week.” This goal is much more specific and includes actionable steps.
The simple act of setting an effective goal gives you a better chance of realizing that goal. In fact, listed below are several principles crucial to setting effective goals.
Effective goal-setting principles:
- Clarity. A clear, measurable goal is more achievable than one that is poorly defined. In other words, be specific! The most effective goals have a specific timeline for completion.
- Challenge. The goal must have a decent level of difficulty in order to motivate you to strive toward the goal.
- Commitment. Put deliberate effort into meeting this goal. Share your goal with someone else in order to increase your accountability to meet that goal.
- Feedback. Set up a method to receive information on your progress toward a goal. If losing 30 pounds in four months turns out to be too hard, it is better to adjust the difficulty of your goal mid-way through the timeline than to give up entirely.
- Task complexity. If a goal is especially complex, make sure you give yourself enough time to overcome the learning curve involved in completing the task. In other words, if a goal is really tough, make sure you give yourself some padding to give you the best chance at succeeding.
How do I use this in my life?
Setting a goal is a great way to encourage achievement and stay motivated. However, many of us set goals that are ineffective at pushing us to do our best. When you are helping your youthling with a project or trying to improve an aspect of your daily life, think carefully about the goals you set. Ensure that each goal accounts for some or all of the principles above: clarity, challenge, commitment, and feedback.
Work with your youthling to set goals that are appropriate and achievable given her abilities. Begin by letting her set her own goal. Perhaps she wants to get 100% on her next math test. This goal meets the criteria of being clear, challenging, and is something she has committed to. Talk together about whether that is an attainable goal. If she routinely gets C’s on math assignments, achieving a perfect score might be a poor goal. Next, set a clear action plan for achieving the goal. Consider the complexity of the task and how much time will be needed to be successful.
In the end, her goal might read something like this: “I want to get 100% on my next math test. I will perform 5 algebra problems every night for the next two weeks. My mom will give me feedback on whether I am getting the problems correct and how to fix my mistakes.” This clear, achievable goal provides motivation and a specific plan for receiving feedback. Even if she does not reach 100% on her test, goal-setting theory states that she will perform much better than had she made a non-specific, easy goal.
Latham, G. P., Winters, D., & Locke, E. (1994). Cognitive and motivational effects of participation: A mediator study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15, 49–63.
Locke, L. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.