Goal Setting, Motivation, and Achievement 

-   By James Stevenson  -

Welcome to Wise Goals, where goal setting and your goal journey is discussed and helpful evidence-based tools and resources are shared. Here you become a master in the psychology of motivation and goals and learn to motivate yourself and others. 

If you're interested in how you support yourself or your team to grow faster and achieve more, or how you help yourself or someone else become un-stuck... You're in the right place. I'm a qualified positive psychologist and coaching psychologist and an accredited coach with the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). 

Here you'll discover how to use different kinds of goals and related psychological approaches to create within yourself and others... heightened self-awareness, self-belief, wellbeing, clarity, and greater motivation. These are some of the inner functions, that when created, lead to unprecedented progress, growth, and accomplishment.

What's on this page

What goals should you have?

SMART

  • Specific
  • Measured
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timed

PURE

  • Positively stated
  • Understood
  • Relevant
  • Ethical

SMARTER

  • Specific
  • Measured
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timed
  • Evaluated
  • Reviewed

GROW

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will

CLEAR

  • Challenging
  • environmentally sound
  • agreed
  • recorded

GROWTH

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will
  • Tactics
  • Habits

This is such an important question and one that deserves significant time and exploration. You may have an idea of what you want or you may not yet be sure. It can take time for a picture to take shape and a goal to be set. It's my job to help you get there quicker and in the best way for you. In order to check if you're about to climb the best ladder, you might consider some goal setting models such as SMART. Here are some questions taken from goal setting models...

  • How meaningful is this to you? What makes it meaningful? 
  • What will be different when you've done this?
  • What is this all about for you? 
  • What's behind this desire? 
  • When would you like to see a change? 
  • Can you describe this change you'd like to see? 

There are a number of options for exploring these questions and all sets of questions in this site. You can write for 3-5 minutes on each. If you do this, I'd recommend writing without stopping without over thinking. Free-flow as much as you can.

This is based on research by expressive writing experts Pennebaker and Evans (2014). You can do this as an activity with a supportive friend. Asking each other the questions, and listening attentively and actively to each other without interruption allowing the other to think freely. 

What if you're not sure what to go for?

If you're not sure what goal to go for first, you might start by exploring with questions like...

  • What energises you? 
  • What are you like, when you're at your best? 
  • What's gone well in the past year? 
  • What are you most proud of? 
  • What kind of person do you hope to become in 10 years? 
  • What makes you, you?
  • If you had (significant obstacle - money, time, ability, support), what would you go for? 

This is what I usually do when coaching to help my clients open up and start exploring the positive...one of many questions like this inevitably get your mind and heart moving toward setting a goal. Something exciting to go always shows up in time.

You may also like to try one of the goal setting worksheets or templates to get you moving like the one below. How about your first goal being to find out what goal to go for first?

Learned Helplessness and self-efficacy

One common reason people don't go for what they really want is learned helplessness (Seligman, 2011). If you've learnt through experience that perhaps it's a waste of time (even though it's not), or it's painful for example, then in a way it makes sense to protect yourself from a painful experience.

The reasons to go for it... like more effective strategies, quality support, or an accessible process of personal change, may not have been available. But what is learned can be unlearned. 

Goals usually emerge when your self-efficacy (belief in your ability to do something) is there, and it can be created. Self-efficacy depends on previous successes, seeing others succeed, supportive validating others, and the positive feedback from the body. So you can see how it can be gradually built starting with small successes and connecting with the right people.

Popular goals to set

When it comes to goal setting, there are some areas that tend to popular...

Does anything jump out as especially meaningful for you personally? What would be the change that would have the biggest impact on all the rest?

  • self esteem or confidence
  • student life / exams 
  • improvement at work / promotion / new career / change roles
  • start a business / grow a business
  • find a partner / love 
  • friendships and social life
  • exercise / better physical health
  • manage stress, anxiety or depression 
  • Illness / acceptance / progress in difficult times
  • learn something new
  • My body / lose weight
  • save money / grow finances
  • health / nutrition
  • inner peace / happiness / psychological wellbeing 

Why should you set goals?

There is a lot to setting goals well. If you can get to the point where you're ready to try and explore what you want and create goals for yourself, large or small, a lot of benefits can come out of it.

  • If you do it wisely, you'll achieve more than without - even extrinsic or non-self determined goals are linked to greater achievement (Deci and Ryan, 2016). At Wise Goals, where we encourage finding your intrinsic motivation, achievement is even higher and comes with interest, enjoyment and satisfaction. 
  • You'll become more decisive - When you're clearer about what matters to you, what you're unique strengths are, and about where you're going in detail it’s easier to decide on the best action to take. Decision making becomes easier, reducing stress and anxiety. Indecision can be a painful and frustrating experience. Often sticky unhelpful habits and past failures can create stagnation. Often what's needed is a broadened momentary awareness of multiple factors. In that space, decisions happen naturally. 
  • You'll have more enthusiasm and possibility - Arriving at something well-chosen, that feels right, can take some work... especially if it's a major change in direction. However once the outcome is defined and progress begins, it creates fresh possibilities and a feeling of hope and excitement. 
  • You'll become less distracted - One great thing about having extra clarity about where you want to be is... Less distractions. This means less procrastination. It becomes easier to say “I appreciate the offer but not this time thanks”. All those really appealing ways of passing time become more manageable because something else far more important enters the equation.
  • You'll grow in capability - Doing this whole goal setting thing points to a life of growth and bringing out more of your capabilities. Over time, you'll become more capable by setting goals. You'll grow at a faster rate. 
  • Wellbeing and positive emotions - Having personally meaningful goals and working toward them is connected to higher wellbeing, happiness, and more frequent and intense positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2009).

Types of goals you can set

Being aware of the following types of goals can be helpful when you're either thinking about your own progress or supporting others:

  1. Long term goals - in the future  
  2. Short term goals - soon 
  3. Avoidance goals - focused away from something
  4. Approach goals - focused toward something 
  5. Outcome goals - focused on an end point or result
  6. Performance goals - focused on actions taken or tasks
  7. Learning goals - something learnt to facilitate goal progress
  8. Complimenting goals - congruent or in alignment with other goals 
  9. Contradicting goals - goals that compete with each other or work against each other
  10. Self-aligned goals - fitting with values, or body and mind in alignment 

Risks to consider when goal setting 

There are certain risks to be aware of when it comes to setting goals. Goals apply different kinds of pressure. There is a term, Eustress, which refers to positive stress. It would be wonderful to be able to apply the right kind of pressure, the right amount of pressure, in the best way, in a variety of situations.... whether regarding yourself or others. 

1. Consider the task and choose the type of goal wisely  

Most goal setting tends to focus on outcome goals. They describe a desirable end point to be reached at some point in the future. Performance goals or action goals however describe what you will do to get there. How often you will do it, when you will do it by may be included. They apply a more direct pressure. 

One major thing to consider when setting action goals is task complexity... if for you the task can be done without much thought or difficulty then a performance goal can invigorate and greatly improve performance.

Performance goals narrow focus, concentration, and determination so this type of goal is ideal for the task. More monotonous tasks, or tasks where the how is a simple matter, are more suited to action or performance goals. 

More complex tasks however can be hindered by performance goals. (Locke and Latham, 2017). Sometimes a narrowing of focus and a steeling of determination is precisely the opposite of what is needed. If the task for example requires creative thinking then a broader focus may be required. 

2. Considerations if you're struggling with mental health or related challenges

Those experiencing challenges with mental health have many extra obstacles to deal with when it comes to using goals effectively. Common themes like the need to slow down, or to become more emotionally self-aware, all may be especially relevant. Is there a best of both worlds here? 

How much of a nudge to give yourself and when to proceed and when to ease off become big decisions with big consequences in terms of the enfolding emotional state. A flexible rather than a rigid approach and self-compassion grow in importance.

A nearing target date is designed to awaken drive but with mental health difficulties in the picture the risk of the opposite happening is real and working with a professional able to support this process is more desirable. 

On Time Frames - Short, medium, and long term goal setting

Goal setting may seem simple enough... You write down what you want and job done... but it in fact is a complex science worthy of meaty textbooks and has received much interest by researchers in multiple areas... sports, healthcare, business, leadership, education, and many more (Locke and Latham, 2017).

One major theme is time-frames. Goals can exist in the short, medium, and long term. Do you set goals in all of them? How do you connect them? Is the whole congruent? Do your goals compliment each other? Are you being held back by a contradicting goals?

When I'm supporting people with their goals I always see the value and importance of chunking and I recommend this. That is exploring bigger chunks to add meaning to the short term, and chunking down to make larger chunks more concrete and manageable. 

Connecting the short term to the long

Every short term goal begs the question, what is all this for? Where might this lead to and how appealing is it? what if there is a better and as yet unexplored way to get there?

Looking at alternatives, zooming out, is a vital and often ignored task in goal setting. This work reduces the chances of trying to achieve something like a headless chicken and minimises common problems like false starts and regrets later on. 

Connecting the long term to the short term

Likewise, with every long term dream, the linking of the present reality is desirable. What's in the way? What has held you back so far? what would be the most interesting thing to begin with? Thinking in the long term often feels good, which is significant, and the work of connecting that good feeling to the present reality is key. Covey (2004) called this begin with the end in mind. 

Strategically going back and forth in this way, connecting all the time-frames, creates congruence and grows a sense of confidence.

Planning and goal setting - filling in the gaps 

Then there is the work of filling in the gaps, or creating viable pathways. If the whole thing doesn't feel real or possible yet, some motivation and power remains untapped.

Even when a viable route to success is created the science suggests creating more routes, plan B and C and D... because when there is more than one way to get there, then one way not working out extinguishes the impact of a setback. Which of course, are inevitable. With multiple options or routes, hope and motivation remains in times where things don't go to plan. (Snyder, 2000). 

Exploring the middle bit, between the long term dream and the current reality, between the short term and the long term, makes it all feel real. The impossible begins to feel like the possible. This work of exploring your goals in great detail in multiple time frames and connecting them is not easy, but it's the essence of a goal setting approach that get's results.

Setting short term goals

You can use the "my main goal right now" activity to walk you through setting a short term goal. The questions help you set a goal that follows the smart goal acronym. What does smart stand for? Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timed. 

This printable also includes some questions my clients find helpful, e.g. about strengths, if... then questions, imagery, and next best steps. Of course, what I can't do with a worksheet is ask the best question at the best time, spot an area that needs special attention, or hear something that is especially powerful and encourage you to focus more on that to harness it's potential. Still, this activity is a great starting point. 

A short term goal like this can plant a seed... leading to new ideas for action and a growing sense of motivation. 

Setting long term goals

Your long term goals, an ever-changing fluid vision, will develop and change as you do. When thinking about the future, it's not the time to be realistic or practical. The result should feel like a reflection of you and what you stand for. When all your ideas, hopes and passions emerge and combine and a blueprint begins to come together it's exciting... energy-creating!

If your goals ring true to you this activity will help with a background sense of purpose acting as a sort of compass. Fill out the long term dreams worksheet now to give it a try!

Don't worry if you can't fill it all out now. You can always add to this in the following weeks, months, and years eventually creating something you are delighted with which captures your vision for the future.  

Remember, there are no wrong answers! Don't worry too much about accuracy and realism here. Have fun! 

The importance of where you are now in goal setting

Choosing some goals is a great achievement. If you've managed to select some goals and they align with your model of choice (smart, smarter, pure, clear) this is of course just the beginning as you can see in the GROW (Whitmore, 2017) and GROWTH (Campbell, 2016) models. 

Once a goal exists (it may inevitably change many times), your progress depends on how you can integrate it into your current situation in relation to that goal. The movement forward is dependant on this broad, complex reality. This may include difficult/supportive relationships, time restraints, inner resistance, habits. It will also include your strengths, what your good at, your resources, your experiences. It's all relevant and it be considered. 

Creating awareness of this whole allows for two important things. 1. Useful adjustment of the goals. and 2. Creative ways forward and action planning.

When the current reality is honoured and becomes enmeshed with the goal, progress can happen. Exploring what's happening at this moment regarding what you want to happen often presents something important that needs to be tackled first before strong progress can occur. If this important obstacle remains silent or a secret, then you may never know why it's not happening for you. This strengthens our old friend, learned helplessness. 

Creating pathways/options - the wise approach to goal setting

When you're feeling good about what you want, you've been able to decide where you're moving toward (acknowledging that this may evolve), and you've explored all the relevant and related happenings in your life that may be important, something wonderful happens. Ideas for ways forward, new possibilities and actions, and motivated planning start to flow. 

Once you have an outcomes, or various outcomes, it's time for actions, plans, and habits... It's time for movement. When it comes to that way forward, a particular theory by Richard Snyder (2000) called hope theory becomes most relevant. He defines hope as "the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways".

In a nutshell, this theory suggests that when multiples pathways to the goal are explored and created, there is more hope, because un-predicted blockages and barriers pretty much always occur. Expecting this and being ready for it in our goal setting journey is desirable.

When you have a goal that really matters to you and a pathway forward becomes clear it might seem pointless spending time evaluating it, exploring alternatives, comparing them, combining them, developing them.

Although it can seem counter-intuitive and time-consuming, having multiple routes is important in goal setting success. This capability to create workarounds, be flexible, and view things more broadly. I've seen the alternative. Creating one strong route, that not working out, then impacted by the disappointment, years passing thinking it's not possible. Could even be a lifetime. 

From outcome goals to action goal setting and next best steps 

This next part of successful goal setting is another one that can seem awkward at first but as always there is a good reason for it. If you have a exciting result you want defined, it's grounded in the reality of your actual day to day life, a plan and multiples routes have been explored... and it feels amazing knowing there are so many ways you can go about this. You've done a lot.

Surely now you're done. Well, not if you want to set goals the wise goals way. Procrastination can be a sticky obstacle. It's subtle. It can sneak up. But you want to get moving and there is something you can do to support yourself. 

What will you do next? This week? Today? What comes first? I often hear in the tone of my clients voices "I'm full of motivation, I don't need this, isn't this going a bit far". Of course they never actually say it.

I ask for details. When? What time? Where? I build in flexible thinking. If... then statements are shown to create higher commitment then grand promises (Fredrickson, 2009). How can you make this a habit? How can you sustain your progress? When it comes to goal planning all these questions play a key role. 

The wonderful state of hope and motivation that you create is a temporary state, like all things are. An hour later, a day later... life with all it's unpredictability will happen. There may be a time when other things take over and feel more urgent. Knowing this will happen and having a strategy and tactics for this can help with following through, and can take away the guilt when you don't for good reasons.  

More goal setting resources and tools to work with

You can find resources such as different worksheets and various templates for every kind of goal you're thinking of setting below. 

Most popular areas you can set wise goals in

Have you got a goal in mind you want to focus on now? Below are some popular areas that you might want to focus on...

Goal setting articles 

Sometimes a quick reminder to jog our memory can be helpful... Why goal setting works? How it all works? How to make your goal smart etc etc... You will find articles on all this below.

Thanks for popping by...

Well done for visiting the goal setting dojo and honing your skills once again! 

Wishing your great success and get in touch if you'd like some extra support!

James 

Last Updated: 18/06/2022

James Stevenson is the owner of WiseGoals.com. Living in the UK, but also working internationally on-line, James is also a highly qualified, experienced, and accredited trauma-aware wellbeing coach at TraumaAwareCoaching.co.uk. He works with clients in a future focused and solution orientated way by exploring what the good life or a flourishing life might look like for them. Harnessing that motivation, obstacles that come with trauma like the toxic inner critic, self-blaming, self-judgement, fear and avoidance, anxiety, depression, and intense and confusing emotions are worked through. More about James here

References 

Campbell, J. (2016). Framework for Practitioners 2: The GROWTH Model. In C. van Nieuwerburgh, Coaching in Professional Contexts. London: Sage. 

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Pocket Books. 

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory. Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. Guilford Publications. 

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Ground-breaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. One World Publications. 

Locke, E, A. and Latham, G, P. (2017). New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance. Routledge. 

Pennebaker, J. W., & Evans, J. (2014). Expressive writing: Words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor Books.

Snyder, C, R. (2000). Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications. Academic Press. 

Whitmore, J. (2017). Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership. 5th Edition. Nicholas Brealey Publishing

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