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Are You Setting the Right Goals for Success?

It's important to learn before you try to perform.

Maybe you set goals in 2020. And maybe those goals and plans were scuttled as everything shut down and your day-to-day living changed dramatically.

Your plan to move ahead at work was tempered when others around you were laid off or furloughed and you had to take on more duties. Or maybe you were furloughed and for the first time found yourself at home with no work. Or you had to manage children at home, basically becoming a substitute teacher. So you set new goals, like finding a new job. Or focusing on work-life balance. Figuring out how to manage children at home. And so on.

Did your goals work? Were you able to achieve them? If you’re like most people, probably not. At least not in the way you hoped. You might have abandoned some of your goals—or maybe even abandoned goal-setting. I mean, what’s the point when you’re living in such uncertainty and events out of your control constantly affect your plans?

Now might be a good time to revisit your goals and set new ones that will work. Numerous studies have shown that goal-setting is valuable and positively influences performance (Latham & Locke, 2007). Many of us have been taught to use classic goal-setting concepts such as SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based) to ensure a positive outcome. Unfortunately, even following those guidelines doesn't always result in success.

But what if there's a new trick to goal-setting? What if there was a simple concept you could apply to all your goals that would greatly improve the odds of success? There is. Ask yourself a simple question about each goal: Am I ready to perform competently, or am I still learning?

Try reviewing the goals you set in 2020. Were they focused on performance? And were you ready to perform or did you need to stop and learn first? Did you allow yourself the time needed to learn? Answering this question might give you insight into why some of your goals didn't work.

So what’s the difference between a performance goal and a learning goal, and why does it matter?

Let’s say you want to learn a musical instrument. You buy the instrument, get some instruction guides, watch some videos, and start teaching yourself. You’re happy, but you’d like to make faster progress, so you set a goal to perform at an open mic in six months. A reasonable-sounding goal that will propel you forward. Motivated for the moment, you start practicing.

But within a few weeks, you realize you’re not progressing as rapidly as you hoped. Playing an instrument is harder than you thought, and the fun is slipping away. That open mic looms. Now it’s becoming a chore and you feel pressured to practice in order to achieve your goal. Ultimately, the instrument goes into the closet and the goal is abandoned.

What went wrong?

You set a performance goal when you really needed a learning goal. A learning goal focuses on skill and knowledge improvement, not on a specific performance outcome. A learning goal might be, “I will learn to play the C scale on my instrument.” Then—once you have learned the C scale, you can finally set a performance goal of playing the C scale faster and faster until you achieve a certain competency. And when that goal is achieved you move to the next scale. Or you might set a goal to learn a particular song, breaking that song down into smaller parts and learning each part. Ultimately, when you have learned your instrument and can play with a certain level of competence, you can then set a performance goal of an open mic session, if you still want to do that.

By setting a performance goal too quickly, the learning process is ignored, mistakes are often made, you become discouraged, and the goal now seems unattainable. You can apply this concept of learning versus performance to any challenge you are taking on—playing golf or basketball or any sport, learning a new skill like graphic design, or even seeking a job.

People who are new to the job search (either because they are just coming out of school or have been laid off after many years in the workforce) try to jump too quickly into performance without learning. Setting a performance goal like “I will send out 50 resumes this week and apply for 50 jobs” might sound productive and even fit all the SMART characteristics, but if you haven’t taken the time to learn how to write a targeted resume, use relevant keywords, and effectively connect yourself to that specific employer, your time will likely have been wasted. With the job search, fewer, more targeted applications make more sense.

Now that you’ve learned this simple trick for improving goal-setting, review your goals from last year and the ones you are currently setting. Are they predominantly performance goals? And if they are, do you have enough knowledge and do you have the right skills to competently complete them? Or would it be better to take a step back and establish learning goals first? This simple decision may make all the difference in your success.

If you’re like to learn more about learning and performance goals, check out the referenced articles.

© 2021, Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved.


Latham, G.P. & Locke, E. A. (2007) New Developments in and Directions for Goal-Setting Research. European Psychologist; Vol. 12(4):290–300.

Seijts, G. H. & Latham, G. P. (2005). Learning versus performance goals: When should each be used? Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 19(1): 124-131.

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