Achieving goals

Ever wondered what separates those who are achieving goals and those who are just dreaming?  One of those things is good goal setting.  In this article we will look at a number of factors which come together to comprise the most effective goal setting and achieving goals.

What is a goal?

A lot of people will tell you that its S.M.A.R.T.*, and often they will be right, but really it’s any benchmark of achievement which you work towards, this can be anything from aiming to get out of work ahead of the traffic to curing cancer. There are two major categories of goal

  1. Performance – the classic task orientated goal, for example I will process four case files by lunch or I will publish a blog post by 15.30 (feel free to check to see if I did).
  2. Mastery – these are goals that apply to long term complex task, for example becoming an engineer or a career in musci where flexibility and occasional failure (i.e. learning) is part of the process.

Neither of these is better than the other, they are just different, mastery goals encourage long term resilience and are often associated with long term success, performance goals are associated with high productivity and high grades.


Does goal setting work?

Yes! Well 90% of the time if the analysis by Locke et al (1980) is to be believed, and other support it (Tubbs 1986). In particular goal setting;

  • Directed attention.
  • Mobilised effort.
  • Increased persistence
  • Motivated strategy development.

in short people with goals tend to get focused, start to do something, stay at it longer in the face of adversity and are more creative in finding ways to achieve it.  However, it is not universally successful, with some areas such as weight loss only producing moderate benefits (Shilts et al’s 2004) and only about 10% of people actually completing self-imposed goals by the intended time (Wiseman 2009).  Overall the act of setting goals increases the chance of achieving goals, but that is not all there is to it.


Achieving goals – now the magic

Anyone can set goals and plenty of people do, but some just do better at them than others … and here’s one of the reasons why.

Achieving goals is about how you get there


There is a growing body of evidence that it is thinking about the challenges to be overcome on the way to the goal which achieve the goal, not simply fantasising about the goal itself. Consider these two studies


  1. Pham and Taylor’s experiment (1999) into exam grades with college freshman. 5-7 days prior to an exam students were asked to either imagine achieving a high grade (goal focus) or studying hard (challenge focus).  The challenge focused group increased both quantity of study and grade outcomes over the goal focus.
  2. In a 2002 study (Oettingen) people were classified as having either ‘fantasy’ goals (with no reference to how to get there) and ‘positive expectation’ goals (optimistic but acknowledging difficulties). Fantasy was associated with lower levels of effort and success than the positive expectation. Possibly this was because the mind on some level believes that the goal or need for the goal has been satisfied.
Another interesting factor in goal setting is that of visualising achieving goals

In a now classic study Libby et al 2007 got groups of registered voters to either imagine themselves in the first person (associated) casting their vote or to see themselves in the third person (dissociated) casting a vote. Those who watched themselves voting (dissociated) were later found to be significantly more likely to actually vote.

So if you want to achieve your goals

1)    Set a reasonable goal

2)    Identify the barriers and obstacles

3)    Imagining seeing yourself overcoming those barriers


One last thing; keep goals to a minimum as too many at once can produce ‘goal fatigue’ (Ordonez 2009)



*SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound – meaning that it has clearly defined parameters in time / space and is actually doable for example – loss 1 stone in 2 months.   These are great for anything with known factors but are problematic when achievable & realistic are unknowns.


Acheiving goals

The author

Matt Krouwel is a hypnotherapist in Birmingham.





Libby lisa, Eric M. Shaeffer, Richard P. Eibach and Jonathan A. Slemmer (2007) Picture Yourself at the Polls Visual Perspective in Mental Imagery Affects Self-Perception and Behavior  Psychological Science March 2007 vol. 18 no. 3 199-203.

Locke, Edwin A. ; Shaw, Karyll N. ; Saari, Lise M. ; Latham, Gary P.(1980) Goal Setting and Task Performance: 1969-1980 Psychol. Bull. 90:125-52, 1981.

Oettingen G and Gollwitzer P.M. (2002) Self-regulation of goal pursuit:turning hope thoughts into behaviour’ Psychological Inquiry, 13 pages 304-7

Ordonez L, Schweitzer m, Galinsky A, Bazerman M (2009) Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting ACAD MANAGE PERSPECT February 1, 2009 vol. 23 no

Pham L, Taylor S (1999) From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance Pers Soc Psychol Bull February 1999 vol. 25 no. 2 250-260

Shilts MK , PhD, Marcel Horowitz , MS, CHES, and Marilyn S. Townsend , PhD, RD (2004) Goal Setting as a Strategy for Dietary and Physical Activity Behavior Change: A Review of the Literature Am. Jou. Health promotion vol19. Iss.2 2004

Tubbs, Mark E. (1986) Goal setting: A meta-analytic examination of the empirical evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 71(3), Aug 1986, 474-483.

Wiseman, R (2009) :59 Seconds  Chapter 4 Motivation p 84-112