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Goal-Setting Secrets

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 31 January 2012
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Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Editor’s note: Bridget’s article about goals comes in two pieces: Today’s piece is about setting goals, and tomorrow’s piece is about goal commitment.

It’s the end of January already! “Where has the time gone?” my elderly neighbor Stella asked this morning as we chatted about the weather, our families, and which birds we had  spotted in our gardens (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is doing a nationwide Bird Watch this weekend).

Stella is a real inspiration – she‘s in her late 70s, happily divorced with three grown-up children, and as well as being an avid birdwatcher, she paints and leads a regular poetry class at the local University of the Third Age.

We talked about New Year’s Resolutions. Does she set New Year’s Resolutions? Or have goals? No (in fact she snorted with laughter at this point). But she’s always thinking up something new to try, whether it’s writing Haiku, foraging for wild foods, or learning how to make soap. I started to wonder how goal-setting changes as you get older and whether there is a type of person for whom deliberate or conscious goal-setting isn’t required.

In our Positive Psychology Masterclass last week my colleague Miriam Akhtar and I devoted part of the two-day session to the application of positive psychology in coaching. The topic of goals – goal setting and goal achievement – is central to coaching, so the research related to goals and well-being played a major role in our discussion. Whether you are coaching yourself or someone else, it’s helpful to understand the different impacts of different types of goals.

Approach and Avoidance Goals

Approach goals are those with positive outcomes that we work towards.  Positive can mean different things in different contexts, such as liked, desirable, pleasurable, or beneficial.

Avoidance goals are those with negative outcomes that we work to avoid. Negative can mean different things, including disliked, undesirable, painful, or harmful.

Approach Goal Avoidance Goal
to be more efficient to stop procrasting
to be friendly and outgoing at parties to stop being so shy at parties
to take on a leadership role at work to not be over-looked at work


Goal Poster

Goal Poster

Research suggests that pursuing avoidance goals is detrimental to well-being. In one study, participants with a greater proportion of avoidance goals reported lower subjective well-being over the course of the semester and had lower well-being at the end of the semester than they had at the start. In another study therapy clients with more avoidance goals experienced smaller increases in subjective well-being than those with fewer.

One reason for this could be that constantly looking for evidence of the absence of something negative or monitoring negative possibilities drains your energy and enjoyment.  These findings suggest that creating approach goals, or positively reframing avoidance goals, is beneficial for well-being. For some people, however, it may not be that simple, for example where those with an avoidance temperament or a fear of failure. In this situation, researchers advise therapists to query their clients about why they think they are pursuing avoidance goals in the first place, and then to use the information gleaned to decide which direction to take in therapy. Coaches might also follow the same guidance with their clients.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Goals

Goals tend to fall into two categories – intrinsic goals (such as personal growth, physical fitness and contributing to the community that we want for their own sakes) and extrinsic goals (such as money, fame, status and physical attractiveness that we want because of their effect on others).  People often have a mix of both types of goals, and vary in terms of how much importance they place on them. Scientific studies indicate that vigorously pursuing extrinsic goals is linked to lower well-being, whereas intrinsic goals are associated with enhanced well-being. Although this seems like another simple recipe for improving well-being by reframing extrinsic goals as intrinsic ones, it isn’t quite so straightforward, it also depends on motivation.

One Step Further: Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

It’s not just a question of whether your goals are extrinsic or intrinsic, you also have to consider whether you’re extrinsically or intrinsically motivated, in other words, whether you want to do something or whether you feel you have to (because you’re being persuaded, manipulated, pressured, or threatened).

Made it to the top

Made it to the top

Being intrinsically motivated (doing something because you want to, for the sake of it) rather than being extrinsically motivated, enhances your well-being, your engagement with the activity, and your chances of being successful.

So how can we increase our intrinsic motivation for working towards a goal? Self-determination theory suggests that finding ways to increase autonomy (feeling in control), relatedness (feeling connected to others), and competence (feeling able to have an impact on the environment), will all increase intrinsic motivation and lead to greater well-being.

Say we want to increase a child’s intrinsic motivation towards doing homework. Offering money or threatening with loss of playtime may work in the short term, but will not build intrinsic motivation that drives them in the longer term. Instead we could try to increase their sense of autonomy by giving them some choices about how and when they do the homework and increase their sense of competence by providing positive feedback and helping them break down the task into manageable chunks such that they can quickly see progress. Scott Asalone has a good example of this in his article, Moving from “I Must” to “I Want To…”.

It’s also worth knowing that you can be intrinsically motivated to pursue extrinsic goals (and vice versa). If this is the case, having materialistic aspirations doesn’t necessarily decrease well-being if they help the person achieve basic financial security or other intrinsic goals. In fact it has been suggested that in some circumstances pursuing extrinsic goals may even contribute to well-being. So, before reframing extrinsic goals, explore the underlying motivation a little more deeply.


Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586-598.

Brdar, I., Rijavec, M. & Miljkovic, D. (2009). Life goals and well-being: Are extrinsic aspirations always detrimental to well-being? Psychological Topics, 18(2), 317-334.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Elliott, A. & Church, M. (2002). Client-articulated avoidance goals in the therapy context. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 49(2), 243-254.

Elliot, A., Sheldon, K., & Church, M. (1997). Avoidance personal goals and subjective well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 915-927.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001).  Be careful what you wish for:  Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals.  In P. Schmuck & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life Goals and Well-Being: Towards a Positive Psychology of Human Striving (pp. 116-131). Gottingen: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.


Goal poster by EvelynGiggles:

Birdwatching courtesy of Rennett Stowe

Made it to the top by magical-world

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Kevin Simmons 31 January 2012 - 3:18 pm

I find the research into and theorizing about the human ability and decision to change fascinating; it is such a complex issue. Some other factors to consider when establishing a goal: is it within reach given your current state? (hope-theory), do you have the innertalk that will support your progress? (cognitive schema and self-concept), will there be lasting change? (mindset), do you hold any values or behaviors that conflict with the goal? (cognitive dissonance).

To oversimplify these goal-setting secrets: approach goals and intrinsic motivation are best when setting goals. Thanks for the insights, Bridget; I’m going to track down “Self-Theories” to read.

Lisa Sansom 31 January 2012 - 9:07 pm

There seems to be another thread of thought lately that “extrinsic” motivation doesn’t exist – you can only set in place a context that allows the other person to intrinsically motivate him/herself. E.g. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/who-we-are/201108/why-extrinsic-motivation-doesnt-exist

I wonder two things:
1. are we looking at different definitions of what intrinsic / extrinsic motivation means?

2. is there only intrinsic motivation (but someone else can set extrinsic goals for you to intrinsically motivate yourself to achieve)?

This has, oddly, come up in random conversations a couple of times recently. I’m genuinely interested in what you think.


Harry 31 January 2012 - 9:34 pm

Great advice on goal setting.

You may want to check out GoalsOnTrack, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

Bridget 1 February 2012 - 3:56 am

Hi Kevin

Thanks for your insights here – it’s interesting, and useful, to see how many differenet psychology concepts are relevant to goals. It seems there are many more ways to skin a cat* than just to focus on SMART. I’m sure positive psychology coaches will benefit from applying some of them in their practice.


*One day I will look up the origin of this phrase.

Bridget 1 February 2012 - 4:00 am

Thanks for this link Lisa, a very interesting perspective.

I do think the whole extrinsic/intrinsic argument is bound up in values which people rarely discuss. There is definitely a view that intrinsic is ‘good‘ and extrinsic is ‘bad’, and that intrinsic is better than extrinsic motivation, which is supported by the research which suggests that IM is linked to greater well-being.

What Reiss is saying seems to fit with the viewpoint that everyone’s behaviour is ultimately driven by ‘positive intention’ if you dig deep enough.

Could Reiss have made the same point with an example say of a child being told to do homework by parent or teacher? In the intrinsic-extrinsic model of motivation, you could definitely say that the child was extrinsically motivated, in that they’re in some way coerced into doing something by someone else that they really don’t want to do. I’m not sure this fits Reiss’s way of looking at motivation – ultimately the child will give in and do the homework, sure, possibly to avoid punishment or to gain a reward which might be extrinsic or intrinsic (e.g. getting money; avoiding losing pocket money; feeling loved/valued; avoiding feeling unloved / not valued).

Perhaps Reiss’s model only applies to adults? Or perhaps we need a more complex relational/systemic model of motivation, rather than seeing it as a basic continuum. I’ll do some more thinking about means and ends though I’m not sure logic comes into psychology, does it?


Bridget 1 February 2012 - 4:03 am

Thanks for the link Harry, have you used this tool, and has it worked for you?


james buchanan 1 February 2012 - 6:08 am

Thank you Bridget for a very thought-provoking article.
On the point of why Avoidance goals are less constructive than Approach goals, it strikes me that any evidence whatsoever of the phenomenon to be avoided is already partial failure, while any evidence whatsoever of the phenomenon to be approached is already partial success. The former is tantamount to setting oneself up for failure. No wonder it’s less motivating!

Lisa Sansom 1 February 2012 - 9:26 am

Thanks Bridget – I guess with the child and homework, the positive intention could still be an “away from” goal – that that child sees greater positive in pleasing the teacher or the parents or whatever than dealing with the nagging, the punishment of having to do the homework during recess, etc. Ultimately, that child has decided to “want to” do the homework instead of not doing the homework – though it may be for some very specific short-term motives.

Have you read “Succeed” by Heidi Grant Halvorson? Great read on goal setting and motivation (she differentiates between prevention-focused and promotion-focused goals, which are similar to avoidance and approach, I think..)

What I find just as interesting (see “Switch” and “Succeed”) are the discussions on the path towards the goal, not just the goal itself. This also, for me, ties into the Heath brothers’ addition to Haidt’s elephant and rider model – it’s not just about the logical rider trying to control and motivate the emotional elephant – it’s also about the context or the path that is constructed. And how can we construct a “better” path to encourage the elephant to go where the rider wants to go anyhow, so the rider has less work to do.

Which also spills into willpower… 🙂


Scott Crabtree 1 February 2012 - 12:53 pm

Great stuff Bridget! While I knew some of this, it was a helpful synthesis. I used it during a workshop I gave yesterday (The Science of Being Happy and Productive at Work), and tweeted about it to send others here.

Keep up the good work!
–Scott Crabtree

Robert Jenkins 1 February 2012 - 1:47 pm

Hi BRidget. Read them both now. Very interesting and thought-provoking.
But why “secret” ? Are you casting some sort of spell over us? LOL

Bridget 2 February 2012 - 10:01 am

Hi James

I think your use of the words failure and success are very interesting. We so often use them when we talk about goal-setting & achievement don’t we, and they really highlight one of the reasons why focusing on goals doesn’t always work.

Ultimately if the goal of a goal was learning, there would never be any failure, because you’d always learn something. In my experience, far too many coaches focus their clients on performance goals, where failure does mean failure. This happens all the time in the Education system when the focus is only on getting a certain score, or passing a test. We need to embrace the value of learning more.

Just a thought.


Bridget 2 February 2012 - 10:12 am

Hi again Lisa

Yes you’re right, that element of short term versus long term might be a useful distinguising factor – I don’t think I’ve read anything on that in goal/motivation research.

I haven’t read the book you refer to, so I’ll add it to my list – always good to get recommendations!

In terms of promotion/prevention and approach/avoidance – I think they are the same too -perhaps another reader could confirm that?

Hmmm, I’ve never been a great fan of the rider/elephant metaphor myself – perhaps because I’ve too often heard it used as an excuse, you know, when people say ‘Oh I just couldn’t help myself!’ when excusing bad behaviour. But you’re right, the path we take is more important than we think. Means and ends again!


Bridget 2 February 2012 - 10:15 am

Many thanks for your kind words Scott, I’m glad you were immediately able to see some relevance for your work.

And thanks for the tweet too – I’m a huge fan of social networking (and technology generally) although I have to be disciplined, otherwise it’d take all my time!


Bridget 2 February 2012 - 10:19 am

Hi Robert

Thanks for your comments!

Actually I have to thank my wonderful editor, Kathryn Britton, who as usual has done a brilliant job of taking my rough work and transforming it – into not one but two articles. Thanks Kathryn – you know how much I appreciate your skill and hard work here.


Editor K.H.B. 2 February 2012 - 1:50 pm

Thank you for the flower, Bridget. It’s easy to work on your material, though a little harder when it needs to be broken into two pieces. Fortunately there was a reasonable split point. We do try to keep the articles from getting too long, since that keeps them from getting read.

I did wonder about the word “secret,” which was included in your original title — and I didn’t include it in the second title. But perhaps if it caught Robert’s attention, it served a purpose!

Paola R. Abundes 11 May 2018 - 12:42 am

Hi Bridget,
I know it’s been a long time since you published this, but it is really helpful. I’ve all=ways thought that actually some goals are different depending on the results you need, but this makes my mind clearer about that thing. Thank you so much for the great content, as you can see, even with the time it still being helpful and an inspiration.


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