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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.

Yesterday I wrote about secrets of goal setting. Today I’m following up with a few factors that affect maintaining goal commitment.

Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions on 31 Dec 2011 and if so, are you still sticking with them or have you already given up? A survey conducted a few years ago by consultancy FranklinCovey found that 35% of respondents break their resolutions by the end of January. Actually, I was surprised the figure wasn’t higher. So goal commitment is also an important area to examine more closely in positive psychology coaching for self or others.

Goal Qualities that Facilitate Commitment

Two Goals: Going Green

Often we’re told that making goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound) is the key to success. Having well-defined goals is useful of course, although positive psychology gives us a rather different slant on the essential criteria for success. For example, goals which are more likely to lead to better performance and ultimately to goal success tend to be:

  1. Proximal rather than distal (psychology-speak for ‘nearer to us in time’ rather than ‘further away in time’)
  2. About learning rather than performance evaluation (e.g. focusing on acquiring knowledge and skills rather than on attaining a specific grade or score)
  3. About promotion rather than prevention (perhaps another way to say approach versus avoidance)

Looking Forward or Looking Back?

There are other ways to strengthen your commitment to your goals and improve your chances of success. Did you know, for instance, that it makes a difference to your self-motivation whether you focus on the progress you’ve already made or on the things you have left to do? Research suggests that if you are fully committed to your goals, you can maintain your motivation by focusing on to go information, that is, what you have left to accomplish. But if your commitment is uncertain you can increase your self-motivation by focusing on to date information, that is, what you have already accomplished.

Self-control and Why Blood Sugar Matters

Working core muscles

Another insight from positive psychology which is helpful for achieving goals concerns self-regulation. If you think that self-control is not one of your strong points, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In a recent study by Alex Linley and colleagues of the various character strengths of over 17,000 adults in the UK, self-control was found consistently near the bottom of the list. Looking on the bright side though, self control was also found to increase with age, so there may be hope for all of us.

According to psychologist Roy Baumeister, self-regulation is a bit like a muscle – the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. Being more disciplined in one domain of your life, for example in taking physical exercise or managing your finances, can help you develop greater self-control in other areas.

Don’t forget that self-control requires energy; it appears that self-control depends on the level of glucose in the blood, so that a failure of self-control is more likely at times when blood glucose levels fluctuate. This means that eating properly to maintain steady blood glucose is conducive to maintaining your self-control.

Talking about New Year’s Resolutions and goals with my neighbor Stella, who is in her late 70’s, I wondered what was the key to her success. Even though she doesn’t set formal goals, pretty much every activity she does is intrinsically motivated and about learning something new. She takes things step by step. She’s also a woman who speaks her mind. “When you get to my age, you don’t have time to fool around,” she said in her characteristically forthright style. “If you want to do something you just get on with it.”

“Does she set SMART goals?” I wondered to myself. I didn’t ask though. I think I knew what the answer would be.



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.

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.

Linley, P.A., Maltby, J., Wood, A.M, Joseph, S., Harrington et al. (2007). Character strengths in the UK: The VIA Inventory of Strengths. Personality and Individual Differences 43, 341–351.

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

Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247-259.

Baumeister, R. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.



Going Green courtesy of Krissy Venosdale

Working core muscles
courtesy of Victoria Shephard

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Kevin Simmons 1 February 2012 - 1:08 pm

Thanks for the article, Bridget. I’d like to read into the “to go” and “to date” information, any recommendations on where to start?

oz 1 February 2012 - 2:28 pm

Bridget – the lock literature for decades has basically said that self control (conscientiousness is everything). There are other ways to boost self regulation both acutely and in the long term eg positive emotions, exercise and meditation.

I have just achieved my first goal for the year – losing 9 kgs of weight in 5 weeks (20 lbs). The success was based on an understanding that self regulation is like a muscle ie it has limited capacity. So I focused on making sure I made the most of this limited resource. This meant 1) only having one goal 2) removing all temptations and 3)having lots of distractions.

This months goal focuses on spending 1 hour per day meditating. The hypothesis is that I can replace one hours sleep with an hours meditation ie no net loss in free time. Again the story is one goal at a time. This one should get easier as mediation increases self regulation – not sure over what time period


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