Five Key Principles of Setting Personal Goals

Based on their study results, Locke and Latham created a goal-setting framework built on the idea that when an individual has specific goals, their performance is more obvious than in the absence of goals. Setting clearly defined goals leads to better performances.

Locke and Latham’s goal-setting framework suggests five principles:

Five Key Principles of Setting Personal Goals

1. Commitment

Commitment is the degree to which an individual is attached to their goal and their determination to attain it. According to Locke and Latham, performance is highest when people are committed. Based on the commitment to the goal, if someone is underperforming, they are likely to change their strategy or increase their efforts in order to achieve the goal.

When we are less committed, we increase our chances of giving up. In the presence of commitment, there is a strong link between performance and goal achievement — we are more likely to do what we want to do.

Several factors can affect our level of commitment — meaning the desirability of a goal and our ability to get it. It doesn’t matter if you are setting a goal for yourself or for someone else. In order to be successful, you must have a desire and clear understanding of what it requires to achieve success.

2. Clarity

Specific goals will set you on a clear path. When a goal is somewhat vague, the motivational value is limited. Research indicates that goal clarity is related to overall satisfaction and motivation.

Set unambiguous, clear, precise, measurable goals. When your brain has a clear understanding of a goal, you have a good idea of the task at hand. You know the actions required to achieve success — which gives you even more motivation.

3. Challenge

Goals need to provide a challenge, but remain attainable. Challenging goals can improve your performance by providing a sense of self-satisfaction. We might be motivated to find strategies or push our skills to new heights, but goals that are beyond our ability level will not be achieved — leading to feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction.

We are motivated by achievement and the prospect of achievement. When we set goals we know are challenging, but are within our abilities to accomplish, we’re more likely to be highly motivated to complete them.

4. Complexity

If a task is overly complicated, the challenges could negate the positive effects of goal-setting. Too-complex goals beyond our skill level can become overwhelming and have a negative impact on motivation, productivity, and morale.

When you set overly complex goals for yourself, the timeframe needs to be realistic. You have to allow yourself enough time to work toward that goal, and allow yourself opportunities to review and improve your performance. Chop it up into smaller sub-goals, and focus on one part at a time.

When you achieve the sub-goals, you gain new skills and motivate yourself toward reaching the main goal. Even the most motivated people out there will become disillusioned if a task is too complicated for their skillset.

5. Feedback

Miriam Erez found that goal-setting is more effective when there is immediate feedback available. Feedback helps determine your progress toward meeting your goal.

Clear feedback gives you an idea of where action can be taken if needed. If progress or performance falls behind on the required standard to achieve a goal, feedback allows us to reflect on this, and gives the opportunity to set adjusted, more attainable milestones. When feedback is delayed, we can’t clearly evaluate our progress and the effectiveness of our strategies.

When we see that we’re on track, we get a boost in self-confidence — which helps us feel capable of learning new skills and setting even more challenging goals in the future.

Interesting facts on goal-setting

People with good efficiency skills are more likely to set challenging goals — and commit to them. Individuals who believe in their abilities under pressure tend to maintain their progress. On the other hand, individuals who lack this confidence tend to create easier goals and decrease future efforts.

Setting goals is linked to reaching a state of “flow.” Setting clear goals that are within your skillset, yet still challenge you, are a powerful way to bring you into “the zone.”

“Social influencers” can have a strong impression on our goal choices. The impact of social influences on actual goal-achievement is negligible, as achievement involves personal knowledge and skills. But social influence remains a strong factor in our choice of goals.

Setting goals and reflecting on them improves academic success. An average of 25% of students who enroll in a university or college course do not complete their studies, and the most common explanation is a lack of motivation and lack of clear goals. Goal-setting intervention programs conducted in universities was shown to significantly improve student performance and lower dropout rates.

An optimistic attitude toward goal-setting can also aid success. The student research showed that factors like optimism and hope had a significant positive impact on how they managed goals.

Locke and Latham found that goal-setting improves motivation when added to other incentives. Setting goals also boosts the efficacy of monetary incentives. Within the workplace, they found that money as a motivator was far more effective when the rewards were linked to achieving specific objectives.

Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to an overall improved performance. Comparison between effects on non-specific (“I will try to”) and specific goals showed that challenging goals are unlikely to be achieved when they are non-specific. Challenging goals require specificity.

Goals are good for motivation, and vice-versa. Most definitions of motivation include goals and goal-setting as a crucial factor. A 1981 study by Kleinginna and Kleinginna describes it best: “Motivation is the desire or want that energizes and directs goal-oriented behavior.”

Why goal-setting works

When goal-setting is done correctly, it is highly effective — and sometimes even critical to success. Goals give us direction by focusing our attention on behaviors relevant to our goals, and away from irrelevant tasks. John Miner suggested that goal-setting works through three different basic propositions:

  1. Goals boost performance by motivating you to put in the effort required for the difficulty of the task at hand.
  2. Goals motivate people to pursue activities over time.
  3. Goals direct people’s attention to relevant behavior, and away from behavior that has a negative impact on chances of achieving success.

People are more frequently successful with goals that are challenging and specific. Locke and Latham suggest that this strategy works best because:

  1. Challenging and specific goals relate to a higher sense of self-efficacy (the belief in our own abilities and skills).
  2. They require more effort and a higher performance to bring out a sense of satisfaction.
  3. Specific goals are less ambiguous in terms of what constitutes as a good performance.
  4. Challenging goals are more likely to lead to valued outcomes.
  5. They stimulate a tendency to persist longer with tasks.
  6. The more challenging and specific a goal is, the more attention you will dedicate to it — sometimes utilizing little-used latent skills.
  7. They motivate you to plan ahead and search for better strategies.

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