Taking the work out of goal-setting

Taking the work out of goal-setting

I have a background in psychology and for many years I’ve been interested in what psychology research can tell me about motivation. I’ve thought about this topic a great deal, researched it, and written about it. I’m interested in how the research can help me get to the bottom of questions like: how can I motivate myself to achieve something I really want to achieve? How can I motivate a sports team to train harder, to try harder? How can I motivate a work team to achieve higher levels of performance? Having looked at lots of research on motivation (and through my own experience), I can think of a number of answers to these questions, but none stand out more than goal setting. Goals work, pure and simple.

Decades of research on goal-setting has shown that, 1) people who set goals achieve more than people who don’t set goals; and 2) people who set specific, challenging (but not too challenging!) goals achieve more than people who set general (or “I’ll do my best” type) goals.

Now here’s the thing, it’s good to write goals down and so much information on goal-setting pushes the idea that you have to write goals down for them to be effective. The implication is that you haven’t really got a goal unless it’s written down. As if! That’s nonsense. It’s great to write goals down, but here’s a little secret, they don’t have to be written down to be effective. Goals work, whether you write them down or not.

Just spend some time thinking about your goals, maybe when you’re lying in bed at night, or having a shower in the morning. Think about them and let them seep into your subconscious and it will pay dividends.

Why do goals work? Goals work because they cause us to become dissatisfied with the status quo. They create a psychological discomfort, a type of internal tension that drives effort towards reducing that tension. They direct attention, effort, and action. They are like psychological rubber bands, causing tension between the status quo and the goal, moving you towards the goal. And importantly, they have benefits beyond the conscious level. They subconsciously prime us for action.

You can think of the process of goal-setting as a soft skill. If you become skilled at it, there are lots of benefits, personal and professional. For example, managers can draw on the power of goal-setting in their day-to-day conversations, to drive performance. It’s something I teach in my Soft Skills for Hard Results training program.

So if you are looking for ways to develop your own levels of self-motivation, or if you are looking for ways to motivate your children, sports teams, or work teams, draw on the power of goal-setting. There’s a mountain of evidence that shows they work.

John Girardi

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