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Goal Setting

How to set effective goals and slay them [+Free worksheet]

Do you know how to set effective goals in life. Deep-dive into the 5 key psychological principles behind effective goal setting. Download the free goal setting worksheet to gain more clarity with your goals today!

In the previous post, we talked about the importance of setting effective goals.

In part 2 of this goal setting series, we examine some psychological principles behind goal setting in depth.

Read on to find out if you have these 5 steps locked down in your goal-setting strategy.

Origins of the Goal Setting Theory

Long before the SMART goal acronym was coined, psychologist Dr. Edwin Locke published his breakthrough article in 1968 on goal setting and motivation. It was titled, Toward a theory of task motivation and incentive.

He was joined by Dr. Gary Latham many years later and the goal-setting theory (1990, 2002, 2006) was born. This theory or framework, has been used in Industrial and Organisational Psychology circles for more than two decades, and is equally applicable to personal goal setting.


In this framework, Locke and Latham outline 5 principles that underlie effective goal setting:

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment/accountability
  4. Feedback
  5. Task Complexity

We will go through each principle in detail below.

1. Clarity – Setting Clear & Specific Goals

When you set clear and specific goals, you are able to measure them. You know what is expected of you and you will know when you are doing things that aren’t contributing to your goal.

Ambiguous, vague and abstract goals don’t work. Telling yourself or others vague statements like “do your best” or “try your best” really don’t work. Instead statements like “write 1,500 words in 2 hours” or “finish 2.4km run in 8 minutes” are more effective.

I’m sure you’ve heard of a SMART goal? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. For goal clarity I usually focus on these two aspects more: Time-bound and Measurable.

Ask yourself – what metrics are you going to use to measure your goals? Word Count? Number of pages? What does progress look like to you? Get as granular and as specific as you can.

I’ve also discovered that time bound goals are great. This is because for some reason, we tend to procrastinate with goals that have no end to them: no deadlines, no time limits.

Goals that can be done whenever and wherever never get done.

This is also why long term goals that are vague tend to always get pushed back. Ie: “I want to save more money.” Did that statement make you feel excited or motivated to save money?

Doubt it.

2. Challenge – Goals should be difficult but within reach

Locke and Latham also found that hard goals tend to lead to a higher level of task performance.

We are all motivated by accomplishment and a sense of achievement. This is especially so if the accomplishment is deemed as significant. You will put in more effort for end-results that hold more meaning for you.

Rewards are a great motivational source when you are in the process of getting to your goal.

Using me as an example, I write long reports for work. So I might set aside, say, 2 hours to finish 3000 words. Once I’m done I will reward myself with say, my favourite drink (tea!) or 10 minutes of my favourite TV show. Just ten minutes!

The key is to celebrate your successes but not to let rewards constantly distract you from your goals.

At the same time, goals can’t be too challenging that you feel it is totally out of reach. It has to tick the A in SMART – Goals have to be reasonably challenging, and, Achievable.

If it is too difficult and completely beyond your skill level, it will be incredibly demotivating and you would just give up.

So ensure that your goals are the right amount of challenge for you. If in the middle of your progress, you feel like you are still nowhere near achieving your goal and you’re finding it very difficult, it might be due to either a lack of skill or the goal you’ve set is too large.

The former can be easily overturned through learning – just spend a little time brushing up on your knowledge/skills. The latter just requires you to break your goal down even further to make it clearer and more specific (see Step 1!).

3. Commitment – Perceived ability and self-belief

Once you’ve created the goal, the real test will be staying committed to it! Goal commitment and difficulty tend to go hand in hand. The more difficult the goal, the more commitment and motivation is required.

Locke and Latham identified 2 factors that will determine your level of motivation: Ability and Self-Efficacy.

The greater your perceived ability to accomplish the goal, the more committed you will be to it. In other words, if you think you possess the right skills, expertise and knowledge to get to your goal, you will remain very dedicated to accomplishing it.

Self-efficacy is the belief you have in being successful or accomplishing a task. People with a high level of self-efficacy tend to be more resourceful and creative – they actively look for strategies and methods to achieve their goals. They also tend to have better responses to negative feedback –  they frame setbacks positively.

A higher self efficacy leads to strong goal commitment and hence more successful goal attainment.

Again, don’t forget to celebrate all your successes. Every step – big or small – is a step closer to your end-goal.

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4. Feedback – Evaluate and recalibrate

This step is extremely important and ties the entire goal setting process together.

Feedback helps you recalibrate expectations, measure progress, adjust goal difficulties and celebrate your successes.

With personal goals, you can evaluate your performance by conducting reviews. I do this daily, weekly, monthly and annually. If that’s too much for you – you can start off with weekly reviews. A week isn’t too long or too short a timeframe.

Feedback also motivates you.

I know that each time I review my goals – I feel a huge sense of accomplishment, pride and gratitude; even if it’s a small accomplishment.

If I’ve not achieved anything of note, I just feel more motivated to do better tomorrow.

5. Task complexity

This last step requires that you do not get too overwhelmed by the complexity of the task or goal.

If you feel stressed or overwhelmed by a goal or you feel like your motivation levels are dropping, here are some things you could do:

  • Take a (mental) break. Don’t do anything about your goals for a few days. Mental breaks help immensely by giving you distance and perspective. You will return to your goals with a fresh pair of eyes and more motivation.
  • Review your goals again. If you feel super stressed about your goal, it could be due to it being too complex or unrealistic. Reasses your goals again. Break them down into smaller goals, if necessary
  • Reassess your deadlines. Sometimes we underestimate the time we need to accomplish a goal and end up feeling very stressed out when the deadline is approaching (or has come and gone!) and we are nowhere near where we should be. Re-assess your timelines again. Build in more buffer time wherever you can and ensure you are able to finish your task at a comfortable pace.

[Related: Intending to reflect on your 2017 before moving on? My post and worksheet on doing up an effective Year-End Reflection will help!]

Set effective goals for 2018

The time has finally arrived to think about 2018.

Give some thought to what goals you would like to accomplish in 2018. Is it to save more money? Or lead a healthier lifestyle? Break that statement down to even smaller mini goals you can accomplish, and set deadlines for each of them.

The worksheet below will help you set effective goals next year by breaking down large goals into specific steps and assigning timelines for each.

What are your goals for next year? Leave a comment or get in touch if you want to share 🙂 Have fun!

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