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Are You Setting the Right Goals?

Interview with Edwin Locke

Source: istock

Do you struggle setting or sticking with your goals? It turns out you’re not alone. It’s been estimated that ninety-two percent of us can struggle to stick with our goals.

“If you don’t set yourself goals, you risk drifting through life acting on the impulses of the moment,” explained Edwin Locke, from the University of Maryland and one of the world’s leading researchers on goal-setting when I interviewed him recently. “And you’re not going to thrive as a human being.”

Goals are what enable you to be in charge of your own life. They can direct your actions and attention, give you the opportunity to use your existing skills and knowledge, motivate you to keep learning and growing, and put you on the path to achieving what matters most to you.

So how can you set more effective goals?

Edwin and his colleagues' review of over thirty-five years of research on goal-setting has found that the most effective goals are clear and specific—such as a deadline, number, or outcome that can be measured—rather than vague. They’re personal to you, so they reflect your values, abilities, and the context of your life. And that you are likely to put in more effort and perform better when your goals are reasonably difficult as opposed to easy.

Edwin suggests it’s also important to determine if you are setting yourself performance or learning goals. When you have performance goals you’re focused on the results you want to achieve. However, if you become too fixated on the end result you can become overly worried and anxious about others' evaluations and your own success. And in doing so actually undermine your performance.

On the other hand, if you set yourself a learning goal, you are less caught up in the end result, and more focused on the strategies you’ll develop, and what you’ll learn in the process of getting to where you want to be. When you set yourself specific difficult learning goals rather than performance goals, you are more likely to perform better through challenges.

“Learning goals are a means to performing well,” explained Edwin. “By focusing on these types of goals, you’ll learn the skills, knowledge, and techniques that will get you to where you want to go.”

How can you improve your goal-setting strategies?

Edwin suggests four ways to improve your goals:

Make them personal - it’s very important when you set goals for your life that they’re your own goals, and not goals for impressing, competing with, or getting the approval from others. Edwin suggests when you set goals to make an impression on others your life is controlled by other people. Consider what is meaningful to you and your family, what your values are, what kind of legacy you want to leave, and how your specific goals will fit with the rest of your life.

  • Be committed – understanding why the goal is important to you personally, and believing that you can acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to attain the goal, can increase the chances that you’ll put in the effort and hard work required. Publicly stating your intentions, either to work colleagues, or to a coach or mentor can also enhance your commitment, as following through on your actions then becomes a matter of integrity to yourself and others.
  • Track your progress – tracking how you are going in relation to your goals can help you know when you need to adjust how much energy you are putting in, or if you need to try a different strategy. When you can get feedback on your efforts you are more likely to continue to pursue your goals. Take time to regularly review your progress, and seek out others that you trust who can give you honest and supportive feedback on your progress.
  • Ensure your goals are not in conflict – everyone has a limited amount of time and therefore a limited number of actions that can be taken in a lifetime, so it’s important to develop goal hierarchies that help you decide how to allocate your time to achieve what matters most to you. This takes balancing possibly conflicting demands daily, weekly, monthly and overall across all areas of your life. For example, it may be spending time with your family versus putting the hours in to advance your career.

    Sometimes you may need to take a step back and consider on any given day what’s important. What really counts in your life right now? Where do you want your life to go? And how do your short and long term goals all fit together to achieve this?

What can you do to set goals to achieve the outcomes you want at work?

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