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Goals Are Not What You Think!

Goals tell us what to get not what to do.

The importance of goals is widely recognized in human endeavors. Teachers in schools help students develop goals for learning and achievement. Athletes set goals to reach new levels of performance, and people in organizations and industries set goals to enhance productivity, promote employee satisfaction, and advance their careers.

Despite how readily goals are discussed and how widespread the practice of goal setting and monitoring is, the way in which goals work is still poorly understood. Many people, for example, think of goals as specifications for particular behaviors or instructions to act in particular ways. This is not the case at all. Even when goals are expressed in terms of specific behaviors and even when these goals are achieved to the satisfaction of the goal setter, goals are never about producing specific behaviors. Goals are always about the outcome or result of particular behaviors, not about the actions that bring those results into being.

Actions are definitely important for achieving goals but the specific actions that are used to accomplish a particular result are determined jointly and simultaneously by the goal and the current circumstances and conditions of the environment. If my goal is to order the Beef Massaman Curry from the menu, the way I go about doing that will depend on the conditions of the restaurant in which I am dining. Perhaps the restaurant is very noisy so I point at the menu rather than shouting. Maybe I use the number of the meal rather than its name. It may be the case that the waiter doesn’t speak English so I may ask my host to order for me.

It’s important to realize that “ordering a meal” is an outcome of behaviour, not a behaviour itself. And the outcome is something we sense or experience. We only ever know about our behaviors by the effects they produce for us. The important “take home message” here is that it is outcomes or experiences that repeat not the behaviors that produce them. In fact, we need to do different things in different circumstances to experience the same result or outcome.

Sometimes we can even do opposite things to achieve the same result. If my goal is to keep my car in the centre of its lane on the road, sometimes I might turn the steering wheel to the right and at other times I might turn the steering wheel to the left depending on the path the road takes. In this situation I’m using opposite steering wheel actions to achieve the same result.

A tennis player who wants to continue serving a high percentage of first serves into play throughout an entire grueling five-set match will need to do slightly different things in the fifth set than he did in the first set. He’ll need to “pump” himself a little more, to push up a little harder with his legs, and so on.

Sometimes, when the goal is unknown (to other people), a person might seem to be behaving erratically or unpredictably. Perhaps a student who is normally sociable and cooperative becomes angry and upset. They might even start shouting and swearing. While this might be perplexing at first, if it is discovered that the student wanted time alone to reflect on a difficult situation but the teacher made repeated attempts to talk to the student, the actions that seem out of character for the student could be understood as the necessary means of achieving the goal of aloneness. Necessary in those particular environmental conditions at that particular time. Ironically, although it would ordinarily be considered to be the student who was behaving inappropriately, a more “cutting edge” understanding of the dynamics of goal achievement would highlight the shared responsibility the teacher had in the escalation of the student’s actions. Knowledge such as this, related to the way goals actually work, would enable educators to achieve different results in their interactions with students if that is what they wish to do.

Appreciating goals as the realization of consistent results by variable means could make goal setting more sophisticated and successful. A goal setter who understands the relationship between goals, behaviour, and the environment would give some thought to the conditions and circumstances under which a goal is going to be experienced. What might be going on in the environment? How will unpredictable conditions be negotiated?

Another helpful nuance in the workings of goals is to recognize that goals are never achieved in isolation. Any particular goal is nested in a web of goals with more complex goals above it and more concrete goals below it. Essentially, any goal, at any point in time, is used to achieve a more complex, perhaps more highly valued goal. Why does the tennis player want to continue to hit a high percentage of first serves into play? To win the match. Why does he want to win the match? To progress in the tournament. Why does he want to progress in the tournament? To improve his ranking? Why does he want to improve his ranking? To make more money? And so on. Following a “why-trail” such as this will eventually lead to those serene spaces in the landscape where you will find the you you are, the you you are becoming, and the life you are fashioning for yourself.

Goal states and the experiencing of them are the defining features of humanity. Understanding how goals work will help us all live more of the life we dream about.