I bought my Passion Planner the summer before my freshman year at PLNU, hoping that it would spark some transformation in my college life. I expected that it would get me to be organized, consistent, and responsible. At the beginning of the school year, I had these goals to become a better person, basically an Ashley 2.0. I wanted to be more tidy, more athletic, more social, the gist is easy to understand.
But I found myself floating by the first semester, not trying to do better. With college starting off at a rockier place than expected, with the tension of family stress from home, an emotionally straining roommate, and difficulty in class, I lacked motivation to do anything I had planned.
New Year’s is on the horizon, and many people are likely to experience what I did. We always want to be a better version of ourselves. Come January, the gym will be packed with people trying to be healthier. By the time February and March roll around, the gym parking will be wide open as people revert back to their old ways. As a student, I have gone back and forth from being ultra-productive to procrastinating until the last possible second. That’s why I want to understand the difference between desires and goals. I want to understand the main factors that keep people from following through with their goals. I want to manage my life and make wiser choices as advised by my psychology 101 professor, Dr. Tim Hall. That’s why, here, I am going to delve into goal setting theories and try to explain what types of goals yield the most productivity. With luck (or perhaps with better goals), we can all enter the new year with resolutions that transform us. This time, for real.
When a goal is beyond a person’s means, it clearly won’t happen. A goal must be possible to execute or it’s simply a wish. George Doran came up with the acronym SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely – to help people create achievable goals. Keep in mind there are exceptions to these attributes, of course. Still, it makes sense that a goal should be as unique to you as possible, with certain results and a deadline in mind.
With luck (or perhaps with better goals), we can all enter the new year with resolutions that transform us. This time, for real.
How one frames their goal is crucial. Goal framing is envisioning what a goal looks like and determining what achieving it entails. Goals can be framed in terms of avoidance or approach, and this can make a significant difference. When a goal is worded in terms of avoidance, the goal tends to be more vague. For example, one of the persons in a crumbling relationship might try to make the goal to be less demanding with his or her spouse. This type of goal is made using an avoidance approach. According to research done by Envisia Learning, avoidance goals aim “to eliminate an undesired state, and tend to have more ambiguous strategies associated with them and should not typically be used.” Goals that have specified solution states are called approach goals. According to Envisia Learning, “Because approach goals tend to be more effective than most avoidance goals, one strategy for behavior change interventions is to encourage clients to redefine any avoidance goals into approach goals.” Essentially approach goals help to provide a clearer, more actionable frame.
With framing, it is also important that goals not be viewed as frightening or overwhelming. Edwin A. Locke is a pioneer in goal setting theories, and in one of his articles he says, “Assigning hard goals may not be as effective when people view those goals as threatening.”
A good example to demonstrate this concept is dieting; if a person knows that eating healthier means giving up one of their favorite foods or the fear of going hungry, then that person might just stick to their comfort food, even if they enjoyed the idea of being healthier.
People need to envision not only the destination but also the journey. Business professional Jim L. Smith of BNP, who has been in management for 45 years, says, “Goals should focus not only on ends but also on the means. The way goals are accomplished should not be separated from how they are accomplished.”
Short-term Versus Long-term Goals
It’s also important to understand how different kinds of goals tend to spark action in different ways. For example, people tend to approach big picture goals differently than small picture goals. Small picture goals are often easier to make timely (the “T” in a SMART goal). People are also more likely to seek accountability from others for short-term goals, according to an Envisia Learning study. In that study, people who wrote out their short-term goals and shared them with others, were 33 percent more successful with their goals. By keeping your goals small, you can work toward a tangible objective with support.
A bigger picture is good to have, too, however, because it helps to give you vision.
Athletes tend to do this well. It’s common for athletes to have different goals for immediately looming competitions and for the season as a whole. Here we can see how concrete steps – for example, running a certain time at the next track and field meet – can help to aid a bigger vision, such as setting a new school record in the mile by season’s end.
Hall, who was head soccer coach at PLNU for 22 years, said, “The key to reaching a long-term goal is being faithful and diligent in performing a set of prescribed disciplines each and every day. Without doing the short-term goals, the long-term goals can never be realized.”
Another example could be spending time in God’s Word. A long-term goal of reading through the Bible in a year is more easily accomplished when short-term goals of certain amounts of reading are set for each day.
The key to reaching a long-term goal is being faithful and diligent in performing a set of prescribed disciplines each and every day. Without doing the short-term goals, the long-term goals can never be realized.
Learning Versus Performance Goals
There are also differences between learning and performance goals. For example, losing 15 pounds is a performance goal. According to Locke, the problem with creating a specific performance goal is that a complex task, such as weight loss, can create tunnel vision in which the person focuses on the result rather than acquiring the skills to obtain it. In contrast, a learning goal might encompass researching how to eat healthier and beginning resistance training exercise in order to lose 15 pounds. The difference here is that the learning goal is putting specificity into the performance goal. This is similar to how the short-term performance goal gives concrete action to the bigger picture goal. Understanding how these types of goals differ can help to give more insight and equip people with the skills to plan.
How Difficult Is the Goal?
Another important factor to consider in goal setting is goal difficulty. Again, referring back to the SMART acronym, the idea that a goal needs to be realistic and timely means that the goal has to be easy enough to make it such. In a study in the Journal of Human Kinetics easy goals were described as those able to be executed without much difficulty. Easy goals can be accomplished relatively quickly, but the problem can be that they don’t give enough satisfaction. It’s important to stay grounded and make sure that you is capable of achieving a goal, but there’s something about extending yourself to accomplish bigger tasks that can be extremely satisfying. After all, that is why people set goals for themselves: to stretch and grow. The key is to finding the right level of challenge that pushes without being completely out of reach.
It’s important to stay grounded and make sure that you is capable of achieving a goal, but there’s something about extending yourself to accomplish bigger tasks that can be extremely satisfying. After all, that is why people set goals.
Group Goals Versus Individual Goals
When reading magazines about how to achieve your resolutions for the new year, one of the pieces of advice that is always there is to get an accountability buddy. According to the Envisia Learning Query “…availability and type of social support, as well as regulation of emotions, are equal to, or even more important than, cognitions in predicting both intention and initiation of new habits.”
Hall adds: “It is similar to each member of the team fully committing to the short goals and being accountable to one another in performing those goals, as opposed to just talking about a goal and having a good idea/intention.”
Eric Barker, a sociology writer for Time Magazine makes the claim that people motivate themselves by getting the accountability of others. He quotes research from the Longevity Project which says, “The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.”
Individual goals are good, but linking those individual goals to group goals can be even more effective.
What the Naysayers Say
While all this knowledge helps us to understand what types of goals are most likely to be achieved, some people believe that goal setting itself isn’t worthwhile.
For example, critics says, goals aren’t always positive. A goal might send someone down a spiral if it isn’t well managed. For example, a person may want to become more active. The person begins to lose a significant amount of weight, but they don’t want to stop and maintain a healthy weight. Instead, they may continue to pursue dangerous levels of weight loss, even becoming anorexic and endangering their life.
John David Mann, a contributor at the Huffington Post, describes another potential problem with being laser-focused on ultra-specific goals. “Sometimes,” he says, “while you’re busy taking aim, there may be a much better idea floating at the very edge of your field of vision, something you hadn’t thought of and never would have thought of. And if you’re focused on the target to the exclusion of all else, you’ll miss it.”
Writing for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge publication, Sean Silverthorne reports on research suggesting that goal setting in businesses is not always useful and can even be harmful. Silverthorne reports: “We argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. Bad “side effects” produced by goal-setting programs include a rise in unethical behavior, over-focus on one area while neglecting other parts of the business, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. One example: the explosive Ford Pinto. Presented with a goal to build a car “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000” by 1970, employees overlooked safety testing and designed a car where the gas tank was vulnerable to explosion from rear-end collisions. Fifty-three people died as a result.”
Others suggest, less ominously, that goals aren’t worth setting because no matter what, they are hard for humans to follow, and opportunities and growth best come more spontaneously.
Though goals aren’t perfect, they can be a start to creating better lives for ourselves. Goal setting gives a concrete plan of action versus a mere desire. Everyone wants to be better in the new year, including me, and goal-setting is one way to get started.
By Ashley Manzo
Ashley is an information systems major at PLNU. This article is based on her freshman research paper for Writing 110.