Goal Setting Theory

Not using the principles of goal setting theory is the main reason why many people fail to achieve their goals. 

We have probably all heard of the importance of setting SMART goals - but are they the only things to consider when you want to set and achieve goals?

Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham spent many years researching goal setting.

comprehensive review of over a hundred studies they found that 90% of studies that specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals. 

goal setting theory

In addition to setting specific and challenging goals, Locke and Latham identified five other characteristics of goal setting theory that were particularly important. 

Locke and Latham's five goal setting principles 

  1. Clarity.
  2. Challenge.
  3. Commitment.
  4. Feedback.
  5. Task complexity.

I want to look at each of these important principles and see how you can apply them to your own life.

1. Setting Clear Goals - an important first step in goal setting theory

Goals vary in terms of being general ('I'll do my best') to specific ('I will improve by 50%').

According to goal setting theory and research, the more difficult and specific the goals, the more concentrated the effort in pursuing behavior to achieve them.

In short, specific goals inspire effort and produce better results than easy, vague goals. If you are not able to measure a goal, how do you know whether you have achieved it?

Our SMART goals template enables you to set clear, measurable goals which have a clear timeline. Rather than setting vague goals such as "do your best", set clear, objective goals such as "increase revenue by 10%" or "respond to customers within x hours".

2. Set Challenging Goals

Easy goals are easy to ignore! Easy goals don't drive or inspire you to greater effort and often have limited rewards.

Locke and Latham spent years researching goal setting and found that more challenging goals lead to higher performance.


Because more difficult goals involve a commitment to aspire and reach. Whether your goals are a financial, career or business, or a personal goals, they must:

  • stretch your ability, 
  • harness your focus, and 
  • motivate you to achieve.

But be careful to keep your goals realistic. For example there is no use in setting a goal to run a marathon in 2 weeks time if you have been a couch potato all of your life. This is just setting you up for failure!

3. Secure Goal Commitment.

What is your commitment to your goal? 

In other words, what are you willing to pay, in terms of time, effort, persistence, to achieve your goal? If you buy into somebody else's goal then it is less likely to that you will achieve goal setting success.

While your boss may set business goals - and there may be less reliance on getting your buy-in as you are paid to work there - when you know that the business goals are in line with organizational expectations and consistent with company goals - then you are much more likely to commit to the goal.

Similarly choose personal goals that are energizing for you and aligned with your values.

Goal commitment is important to focus your attention and increase motivation.

4. Seek Goal Feedback

Don't set and forget your goals. Goal setting is a journey with a final destination. As with any journey we know that sometimes we may veer off the path, crises and storms blow us off our track - and when the destination is far away it is easy to lose sight of where we are going.

Building in regular goal feedback is important so that you can reward, reconsider, and recalibrate - taking into account the present conditions. 

5. Consider Task Complexity When Setting Goals

If a task is complex then you may need some extra time to get up to speed on the task. When the expected learning curve is steeper and/or the task complexity is higher then ensure that you build some extra fat into the goal deadline. 

Locke and Latham's work confirms the use and success of using SMART goals. If use use the above goal setting principles in addition to setting SMART goals you will be more successful and more likely to achieve your goals. 

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