December 5, 2017
By Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP
One of the most common misconceptions about goal setting is that there are only a few things we need to know in order to achieve our goals. Often, the acronym SMART is used to help people to remember to set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive. While this is a nice start, the acronym doesn’t do justice to some of the tremendous complexities that motivational specialists and researchers have discovered are important to an individual’s success.
In fact, having a “realistic” goal may not stretch your own imagination and abilities as far as possible, while a goal that is very audacious might be appropriate for your particular emotional makeup and situation, but not someone else’s. So before you begin your New Year’s resolutions in earnest, I’d like to introduce you to some new facets of goal setting that you may not have read or heard about before.
The best goals are:
1. Challenging & Specific
If you are seeking an outcome in a performance goal—such as achieving a certain grade, salary, race finish, or anything that can be measured—your goal must be “challenging and specific,” according to goal-setting theorist Gary Latham, and individuals’ omission of this one feature is the number one reason why most goals fail. “People don’t always like to work hard at their goals, and they want to wish for positive outcomes and keep the goals deliberately vague. Making performance goals challenging and specific is the only way around this trap,” Latham said, adding, “Easy goals also mean you never have to get down on yourself if you fail.”
After observing workers in hundreds of situations, Latham and Edwin Locke found that two goal conditions consistently lowered productivity and results: “low goals” and “no goals.” Low goals, they discovered, were goals that were not particularly challenging, and that didn’t require a person to exert himself or herself much. These mediocre goals were shown time and time again to produce subpar results.
For this reason, I challenge the word “realistic” as a guideline for goals. Some of our best goals may appear to be unrealistic at first, but when broken down, they are attainable if our best efforts are rewarded with the most promising possible outcomes.
In the same category as “low goals” and “no goals” are “do-your-best” goals, which are often the kinds of goals uttered by well-meaning parents who encourage children to “do their best” instead of encouraging them to strive for something specific. “Do-your-best” goals, we can report to the chagrin of many of us who have set them because we didn’t know better, are detrimental to high performance in most cases.
2. Measurable & Have the Opportunity to Produce Feedback
That which cannot be measured cannot be achieved. What this means is that not only must goals be challenging and specific, but they must have some type of yardstick that adds accountability to the process, also called “subgoals.”
As you think about your own goals, ask yourself if they have measurable pieces to them or not. For example, if you want to donate time to your community’s efforts to rebuild decrepit homes or raise money for a school textbook drive, there must be a measurable component to the goal, for example, “Set aside two hours a week to discuss options for fund-raising if we’re going to raise five thousand dollars by June.” Having these types of subgoals can prevent you from being overwhelmed by the big picture, and also allows you to celebrate the baby steps of accomplishment along the way.
An unmeasurable, vague goal would be something like “Be happier.” But how will you accomplish this and by what date? Which methods will you use? Becoming happier is definitely challenging and somewhat specific for some people, but without a way to measure progress, it’s not a goal that’s likely to be fulfilled.
Closely tied to the need for measurable goals is the fact that regular feedback dramatically enhances success. What this means is that we must use the measurable pieces of our goals to give us feedback that will help us correct our strategy if it’s not working.
3. Exciting & Magnetic
The best goals have an exciting, zestful component to them. They make your eyes widen and your pulse quicken, and you can’t wait to devote time to making them happen. These are called “approach” goals, and they do exactly what they say: They help you “approach” a positive outcome such as “Break 100 on my local golf course by September 1st.” If playing golf is your most passionate form of recreation—and it allows you socialize and spend time with people you like—this goal will help you approach an outcome that will bring you joy.
An “avoidance” goal also implies exactly what it says. If the same golfer set the goal “To not be the worst player in my regular foursome by September 1st,” that would be a goal designed to avoid a negative outcome. Not only do we think about these goals differently (one with anticipation and one with dread), but it’s been found that approach goals actually use up less energy, because avoiding something takes more mental and physical energy than approaching it. As you design your goals, pay attention to the wording and sentiments behind them, and steer away from anything that smacks of avoidance.
4. Tied to Your Own Values & Vision
One of the slam-dunk findings in goal-setting literature is that goals that you set for yourself, and that come from your own genuine desires, values, and interests, are the goals that you will enjoy, pursue with vigor, and savor once they are accomplished. These are called “intrinsic” or “self-concordant” goals. When we are children, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish what we want to do from what our parents want us to do, but in adulthood, we must be clear about what we want to accomplish and why.
“Extrinsic” goals are the opposite of intrinsic goals. These are goals that other people have set for you, or that you pursue because you think you should pursue them. This is often seen among unhappy workers in professions that they chose because they are following a family tradition (i.e., to be a doctor or teacher) or because someone else suggested them. Extrinsic goals often revolve around the accumulation of possessions, money, or fame that you believe will cause you to be admired by others.
Latham has likened intrinsic goals to “overarching vision goals,” which are akin to creating a mission statement for your life. As you set goals for yourself, remember to ask yourself: “What is my vision and how does it connect with my goals?”
It bears emphasizing that goals that are attached to our values are the ones that we’re more likely to adopt and pursue as our own.
5. Non-Conflicting & Leveraged
When we’re young, it’s not uncommon to think that anything is possible (being an astronaut and a Hall of Fame baseball player at the same time, for example) and that we can accomplish everything we put our minds to if we work hard enough. We don’t want to disabuse anyone of this idea, particularly because lofty aspirations often do come true for people who have ambition and grit.
As we get older, though, we need to take a look at making goals that aren’t in conflict with dreams that don’t support or “leverage” one another. Studies show that if we have two goals that don’t logically go together, we will not make progress on either one of them. For example, one of our client’s goals was to be married by the age of thirty, but she found herself avoiding commitment because of the goal her mother had set for her, which was to be mentioned in the social pages of a major newspaper for being at as many events around town as possible. Not only was the socialite goal extrinsic for this client, but it prevented her from making progress on her intrinsic goal of being committed to someone and pursuing that relationship to the exclusion of others.
Goals must not only be harmonious with our own desires and dreams; they must also be leveraged. What this means is that the accomplishment of one goal on your life list will be enhanced by the accomplishment of another. For example, if your wish is to become a yoga teacher and open your own studio, this goal will benefit from other goals such as “Go on an annual yoga retreat with my best friend,” “Visit India,” and “Practice two new yoga poses every week.” Studies show that these types of leveraged goals create well-being and momentum, and improve your chances of overall goal attainment.
6. Written Down
There doesn’t seem to be any doubt among goal-setting experts that written goals produce better results than goals that aren’t written down. Writing goals in a place where you can easily see them has the effect of reminding you of your commitment to yourself, and it also allows other people to add their support and ideas to the accomplishment of your goals.
Journaling researcher Laura King hypothesized that when we write down our goals, we automatically begin to scan our environment and psyche for people and situations that will facilitate attainment of those goals. The simple process of writing down a goal also seems to stimulate a more hopeful mindset, which in turn has been found to evoke a more creative type of “pathways” thinking that generates multiple solutions. Written goals also allow us to immediately identify what is called “goal conflict” and to adjust our pursuits appropriately. For example, a college student who has the goal of being a straight-A, 4.0 student may not want to achieve his second goal, being more active in his fraternity, at the same time.
Gary Latham has also said that “behavioral contracts, which are often used in the business world to set and achieve specific, work-related goals,” have an amazing power to produce superior efforts and goal success. An ideal behavioral contract specifies the following: “This is what I’m going to do, this is how I’m going to do it, and this is how I’m going to reward myself if I succeed.” Studies of these types of behavioral contracts have also been done with recalcitrant students and dieters. Latham noted, “[T]he group with the contract beats the heck out of the group that doesn’t have the contract every time!”
When you write down your goals, you pre-commit to a course of action, creating accountability to yourself. And when you share those goals with others, you add more accountability to the process.
When other people know about your goals, or are involved in their accomplishment, you are far more likely to follow through with your efforts. For example, people who made their New Year’s resolutions public were ten times more likely to succeed than people who did not make a public proclamation. This could be for many reasons, the most obvious being that we don’t want to disappoint others or “lose face” by not living up to our commitments.
8. Capable of Stimulating a State of Flow
Typically, “flow” is defined as a time when you are completely engaged in the task at hand, without any feelings of worry, anxiety, or self-consciousness. Athletes refer to this condition as “being in the zone,” when they are using their physical efforts to overcome a challenge or complete a race. Being in a state of flow on a regular basis is good for us, and good for our emotional well-being. Research Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the happiest people are those who regularly achieve flow at work and in their leisure activities, noting that every instance of flow creates a person who is more unique and individuated than he or she was beforehand.
One cautionary note about flow: Csikszentmihalyi reminds people that flow is not the same as losing track of time while watching TV, playing video games, or being in a mindless state while overeating, overspending, gambling, or otherwise being unaware of your behavior. These conditions are known as “junk flow” and are not necessarily directed toward the attainment of valued and meaningful goals. They are, instead, pleasant and mind-numbing activities that don’t involve any challenge or skill. In fact, it’s been found that our brainwaves resemble the brainwaves seen among depressed people when we watch too much television.
Ready, Set, Goal!
Now that you have learned about the types of goals that have the highest likelihood of attainment, and some of the multifaceted ways in which you can achieve them, I challenge you to write down (remember, this is key!) a new goal or revise an existing goal in light of what you’ve learned.
This post includes excerpts from Caroline Adams Miller’s book Creating Your Best Life, which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here.
Photo Credit: Estee Janssens
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Copyright © 2017 Caroline Adams Miller. All rights reserved.