setting goals

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.Henry David Thoreau

The research is clear: People who set goals are more successful.

There’s something incredibly motivating about setting a goal and working towards it.

When we set a goal for ourselves, it actually becomes part of us. It becomes part of our identity and who we are. We change our behavior and our mindset to make sure we accomplish a goal.

In psychology, this is known as the “endowment effect”, which happens when we take ownership of something and it becomes “ours”. When we take ownership of something, like a goal, we are more committed to it.

Think about how powerful goals are and what kind of effect they can have on your life.

For example, if you set a goal to lose a certain amount of weight by a certain date you start to change your habits and lifestyle.

You’ll start eating healthier, doing different activities with friends, maybe even make new friends if it helps you hit your goal faster.

But as many of you know, most goals that you set don’t end up being reached. In fact, did you know that just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals?

So then the question becomes, why do we continuously fail at goal-setting, and what are the secrets behind those who succeed?

Let’s look at the research together.

The Research Of Goal-Setting

Much of what we know about goal-setting today comes from the work of Dr. Edwin Locke’s research in the 1960’s.

In 1968, Locke released an essay called “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives” that showed a few important things about setting and achieving goals.

  • Specific goals improve the performance of employees
  • Relevant feedback motivates employees towards goals
  • The more specific and difficult a goal is, the harder people tend to work on achieving it

The third point is the most important one. The key to hitting a goal is through the motivation that comes from working towards it.

If you set a goal that’s too easy, you might not even do it because it’s too easy for you. On the flip side, if you set a goal that’s too hard for you, you’ll be too overwhelmed and won’t achieve it.

Locke’s research found that 90% of the time, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy or “do your best” goals.

Having a specific metric to track is much more effective than saying “try your best”.

Which of these two seem more powerful to you?

  • I want to lose some weight by the end of the summer
  • I want to lose five pounds by August 25th

Taking it one step further, we can get even more specific and make the goal more attainable. Setting the five-pound goal was a good start, but now look at the difference between these two goals.

  • I want to lose five pounds by August 25th
  • No bread, fast food, or eating past 7pm for five weeks

The less vague you are, the more likely you are to achieve your goals.

A few years after Locke’s original research, another researcher named Dr. Gary Latham studied the effects of goal setting in the workplace.

It’s the joint research by these two researchers that led to the five principles of goal-setting.

Locke And Latham’s 5 Principles Of Goal Setting

Locke and Latham’s research led them to create five characteristics that you need if you want to achieve your goal.

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Feedback
  5. Complexity

Let’s go through each quickly.

  1. Set Clear Goals

    If your goal isn’t clearly set, how will you know if you’ve ever achieved it?

    An effective goal is clear, measurable, time-bound and specific.

    You need to be able to tell very quickly if you hit your mark or not. That clarity will help you focus and plan each step to achieve the goal better.


    When setting your goal, pick one metric to track and write it down. Remember to make it specific and time-bound. As an example: “I want to increase the organic traffic on my website from 50,000 visitors to 100,000 visitors within six months.”

  2. Set Challenging Goals

    The research shows that people are more motivated by challenging goals. Locke and Latham’s research found that the more difficult and specific a goal is, the harder people will work to achieve it.

    When goals are too easy or too difficult people will not put forward their best effort. A difficult goal is more rewarding, and so that will lead you to work harder towards it.


    Ask yourself when you’re setting your goal, how challenging is this? How excited am I getting about this goal? Is my goal too easy? Would it be possible to increase my goal to make it more ambitious?

  3. Stay Committed

    The goal will realistically only be achieved if you truly want to achieve it. If deep down you have no actual desire to change your habit or behavior, it doesn’t matter how challenging you set the goal to be.

    There will be challenges and failures along the way to achieving the goal, so that belief of truly wanting it will help you persevere during those times.


    Ask yourself, how badly do you really want this? Do you have someone holding you accountable? What led you to choose this goal? Can you visualize what life will be like once you achieve it?

  4. Create A Feedback Cycle

    A goal doesn’t just have a start date and end date.

    The key to success of your goal is through iterative feedback by tracking the progress as it goes and then adjusting as necessary.

    It’s easy to slip back into old habits, tracking your goal regularly will help you stay on course.


    Schedule a dedicated time to review your goals, I’d recommend once a week. Use this time to spot obstacles and make adjustments for the following week.

  5. Complexity

    While it’s important to have challenging goals, you don’t want them to be complex. Having goals that are overly complex will make it overwhelming, making it harder for you to achieve your goal.

    The way to fix this is by breaking down your big goal into smaller chunks. Map out all of the smaller chunks that will lead you to your end result.


    Use a tool like Trello to visualize the smaller tasks and to help you manage the complexity.

Tips To Make Your Goals More Powerful

In addition to Locke and Latham’s goal setting characteristics, here are a few more tips you can use to make setting goals easier for yourself.

  1. Focus On The Journey, Not The Destination

    When you set a goal for yourself, it’s natural to focus on the end result, like how good you’ll look in your swimsuit after you lose that weight.

    But remember that it’s a process, you have to get there one step at a time, and patience is super important.

    Try to improve a little bit each day and before you know it, you’ll have hit your goal.

  2. Prepare For Failure

    During the process of trying to achieve your goal, failure or a minor setback is pretty much guaranteed.

    It’s easy to just give up on the goal entirely once you experience a minor setback, but if you prepare for failure you’ll be able to handle it better.

    Understand that setbacks are normal, everyone experiences them, you just need to get back on track.

  3. Be Accountable

    Having someone hold you accountable for your goals will make you more likely to achieve them. That pressure of knowing someone is expecting you to do something will psychologically make you want to achieve it even more.

    • Post on your social networks about your goals to get public accountability
    • Get a goal partner and check in with them frequently
  4. Set Multiple Deadlines

    Tell me if this sounds familiar.

    You set a goal to lose weight by August 31st. August 15th comes around and you realize you really need to step your game up.

    We all procrastinate, and this is one of the easiest ways to fail with your goals.

    What you want to do instead, is break the goal down into smaller chunks and each of those chunks should have their own deadlines.

    Writing for Forbes, Amy Morin calls these “now deadlines”. These deadlines trick your brain into reaching your final deadline on a steady path.

Any Good Goal Setting Techniques To Share?

What are some tips or tricks that have worked for you? Let us know in the comments!