I’m a big advocate of goal setting because I’ve personally benefited from it. But I’m also amazed how much the science of goal setting explains my personal experience.
Whether working as an independent entrepreneur or a corporate executive, I’ve seen personal and organizational goal setting reap big rewards—and the research shows why.
I share some of my personal story in my new free video series on goal setting, which you can access here. But in this post I want to look at three research-backed ways goal setting can help us accomplish more of what matters.
1. Big Goals Help us Perform Better and Feel Better Too
If you want to stay motivated and achieve more, it’s important to set big goals. It might sound counterintuitive, but the reason is pretty straightforward. Big challenges require peak performance.
“When goals are set too low, people often achieve them, but subsequent motivation and energy levels typically flag, and the goals are usually not exceeded by very much,” according to Steve Kerr and Douglas LePelley. But “difficult goals are far more likely to generate sustained enthusiasm and higher levels of performance.”
In other words, we get more out if we put more in.
As long as we’re committed to our goal, stay focused, and have what it takes to see it through, then there’s a direct link between the level of challenge and our level of performance, according to Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, two leading goal-setting theorists.
And we get a bigger emotional payoff for harder work too. Locke and Latham mention one multiyear study where professionals reported an uptick in satisfaction and wellbeing only if their goals were tough enough.
But there’s a qualifier here…
2. Mindset Really Matters
Goals should stretch us without overwhelming us. When we’re faced with seemingly impossible goals, we disengage. Instead of being motivated by the goal, it saps our energy.
Mindset and perception are essential. Research on stretch goals shows that they can produce amazing results if people can imagine the possibility of accomplishing them.
I found one team exercise Kerr and LePelley discuss especially compelling. A team was able to make marginal performance improvements with a given task. But when they were told that another team was able to do it 85 percent faster, they got more creative and figured out how.
By changing the perception of what was possible they triggered a new level of performance.
If you’re setting goals as a team, it’s important to factor this because we all have different levels of doubt and risk aversion. Leaders need to navigate these differences with their eyes open about what it could mean for the outcome and negotiate these with their teams.
Of course, the cool thing about setting goals for yourself is that you can position the bar as high as you need to get the best personal result.
3. Writing, Reviewing, and Sharing Goals Helps Us Achieve Them
For years people have been citing a famous Yale University study that shows writing down our goals helps us achieve them. The problem is that study isn’t just famous—it’s also phony, and when people discover that they sometimes think the benefits of writing down our goals are phony too.
But no. Professor Gail Matthews of Dominican University of California did her own study not long ago that confirmed the power of writing down our goals.
The study showed a significant improvement in reaching goals when they were written. In fact, just by writing down your goals you are 42 percent more likely to achieve them. Why? Because writing it down brings clarity and declares purpose, and that level of intentionality gives direction to our thoughts and actions even when we’re not fully focused on the goal.
Matthews also found that people who shared their goals and updated supportive friends on their progress did even better. And it’s not only Matthews. Another recent study specifically about fitness resolutions echoes her findings.
This is the perfect time of year to begin thinking about goals for next year—and there’s every reason to think that a proven goal-setting plan can help us accomplish more of what matters most to us.
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve created a new three-part video series that can help you get started. It’s free. It’s proven. And you can watch the first video here.