Emily vanSonnenberg, MAPP '10, designed and teaches the UCLAx course, Happiness: Theory, Research, and Application in Positive Psychology. She operates a private practice helping people cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives, and consults for organizations on how to create desired outcomes and increase well-being. Through her articles and speaking engagements, Emily translates psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies for the general public. Full Bio. Emily's articles are here.
Celebrating the new year in the past week, I have found myself engaged in (or eavesdropping on, admittedly) conversations about New Year’s Resolutions and the goals people were considering. More often than not, people reported desiring similar and general goals. I mentally pictured a red flag waving frenetically above most of these conversations concerning the lack of specific plans for achieving the goals. This got me thinking about the achievement of goals and goal-setting theory.
Editor’s Note: This is the first article by a new contributor to PPND. Welcome, Emily! This article will be followed soon by an article on setting New Year’s Resolutions.
We added Caroline Miller’s book, Creating Your Best Life, to the reference list as a great, easily accessible resource for learning how to set and track goals effectively.
Goal-setting theory is an effective method for achieving personal goals that has been examined since the 1960s and tested on over 40,000 individuals. The theory of goal-setting is based on Aristotle’s final causality–that is, action caused by a purpose.One of the seminal goal-setting researchers, Edwin Locke, wanted to know the answer to the seemingly simple question: Why do some people perform better on tasks than others? He began examining this phenomenon by looking at what people were consciously trying to accomplish when performing a task. After decades of research, Locke and his colleagues have formulated a number of findings that simply and specifically state aspects that can lead to successful goal achievement. Below, are the elemental findings to keep in mind when setting goals:
Finding #1: The more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement.
Finding #2. The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated.
Finding #3. Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to the highest performance.
Finding #4. Commitment to goals is most critical when goals are specific and difficult. Goal commitment is the degree to which you are genuinely attached to and determined to reach the goals.
Finding #5. High commitment to goals is attained when (a) the individual is convinced that the goal is important; and (b) the individual is convinced that the goal is attainable (or that, at least, progress can be made toward it).
Finding #6. Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal.
Goal-setting: A Case Study
About two years ago, I taught Positive Psychology at UCLA to some eager and some (initially) bored undergraduates. Most of the 30 undergrads in my class were not psych majors. As a teacher, I had my own goals–the foremost being to increase students’ self-awareness, critical thinking, and successful pursuit of well-being.The one resounding truth I knew, from my own study and disciplined practice was: being happy takes work. I explained to my students that there would be two positive interventions they would individually have to engage in each day–no matter how much they did or did not want to do them. This strict requirement was one I was choosing to force upon them for their own benefit–my own goal as their teacher being that they would learn how to make these interventions a regular part of their lives. They were instructed to begin these daily interventions the very next morning.
One positive intervention these students were required to begin was something I call an Intention Journal. Here are the steps students were instructed to take:
- After waking up each morning and before using the bathroom or making coffee, they were to implement the very short meditation I taught them to quiet the mind.
- Once the mind was quiet, students were instructed to ask themselves a pivotal question: “What do I want to achieve today?”
- Once the answer became clear, students were instructed to write down their Intention for the day in their Intention Journal as follows, “I intend to ________ today.” Students’ intentions ranged from simple ones such as ”Make someone smile,” to more complex ones such as “Practice self-acceptance.”
- At the end of the day students were instructed to open their Intention Journal and write a +/-/check that served to identify whether they had accomplished/not accomplished/taken steps toward achieving what they had intended earlier that morning. Thus, each night, students were giving themselves feedback about the progress of their morning goal-setting.
I asked students to turn in their Intention Journals to me each week. The reasons I did this were: 1) To hold students accountable for their own pursuit of goal-setting; and 2) To give students feedback about their goals, methods, and progress.
Each week I measured the students’ achievements. I came to find that students who set specific, difficult, and achievable goals which they believed were important, and who were also diligent about giving themselves feedback regarding the progress toward their goals achieved their goals 92% more often than those students who set unspecific, easy, or extrinsically motivated goals and/or did not check-in each night to record the progress they had made.Goal-setting Works
I have been using an Intention Journal for 8 years–and it has worked wonders for me. Additionally, since the completion of the UCLA Positive Psychology class almost two years ago, I have received 24 letters from my former students. In each letter there was a mention of how setting specific, difficult, and attainable goals that were important to them had become a way of life–for they had experienced such positive results by being “forced” to record intentions for themselves each day.
The students seemed to realize that happiness does, in fact, take work and that achieving goals was an important factor that contributed to their happiness.
Klein, H., Wesson, M., Hollenbeck, J., & Alge, B. (1999). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Conceptual clarification and empirical synthesis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 885–896.
Latham, G. P., Winters, D., & Locke, E. (1994). Cognitive and motivational effects of participation: A mediator study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15, 49–63.
Locke, L. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717. doi: 10.1037//0003-066X.57.9.705
Matsui, T., Okada, A., & Inoshita, O. (1983). Mechanism of feedback affecting task performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 31, 114–122. Abstract & purchase
Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.