Use Goal Setting Theory to Set and Achieve Your Goals 

The bad news: Most goals just don’t happen!
The good news: We know why - goal setting theory shows you how to better your odds of getting to yours.

comprehensive review of over a hundred studies conducted by Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham came up with 90% agreement on these findings.

Setting not only specific but also challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals at all.

Their work delivers a robust Goal Setting Theory to maximize both your motivation and your action and all this wisdom is caught in the following 5 principles.

Locke and Latham's five goal setting principles 

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

Step through each principle of this goal setting theory and learn how to apply them to your own life and ambitions.

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

It seems obvious – if you can’t quite clearly envisage and articulate what you are trying to do you are unlikely to achieve it – whatever it is. So long as it stays hazy in your mind it is unlikely to take shape in reality.

So saying 'I'll do my best' just won’t cut it – just way too general as an approach.

Whereas 'I will improve by 50%’ is much better – it is specific and gives you a clear target.

goal setting theory

Interestingly, according to goal setting theory and research, the more difficult and specific the goals the better – because this results in more concentrated effort in pursuing behavior to achieve them.

In short, specific goals inspire effort and produce better results than easy, vague goals.
This part of the theory connects with the S and the M in the SMART goals model which suggests goals need to be both Specific and Measurable.

After all, if you are not able to measure or evaluate your progress on a goal, how do you know whether you are on the right path to achieve it? Many people expend large amounts of energy chasing goals ineffectually when they might have instead tracked and measured real progress towards them. 

Our SMART goals template enables you to set clear, measurable goals which have a clear timeline. Rather than setting vague goals such as I’ll "do my best", this template enables you to set clear, objective goals in set timeframes. Goals expressed in this way -  "increase revenue by 10%", "respond to customers within x hours", “read 4 chapters and summarize” - have a much better chance of coming to fruition than “increase revenue.”, “improve customer response time”, or “read reference texts.”

Indeed, without being able to track and measure your progress towards your goals and the impact of that progress, how do you know when you have reached your desired outcome and if your goal pathway is even still relevant to you?

Your little successes along the goal pathway are key to keeping up your motivation to keep on the straight and narrow and keep persevering to get to your outcome.

Download SMART goals template and enjoy the pleasure of mapping and measuring your successes and the ability to quickly get back on track to your sought after outcomes.

2. Set Challenging Goals

This may seem a bit counter intuitive! The thing is easy goals are easy to ignore!

Easy goals don't drive or inspire you to greater effort and often have limited rewards. You need a reward that is really going to make you want to get going and do something.

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. They are not boring – in fact they are enticing. Whether your goals are financial, career, business, or personal goals, there are 3 key criteria. Your goals must:

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

There is a big but here -  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 yourself up for failure!

So - record and celebrate wins along the way! Readiness for the marathon can be measured in weekly incremental successes that set increasing levels of challenge.

Remember to win at your goals, “you gotta wanna” – so make it interesting and doable.

3. Secure Goal Commitment.

What is your commitment to your goal? Do you care about the results of this endeavour? If “you gotta wanna”, you need to ask yourself - "Am I convinced of the value of my efforts?”

Therefore, be clear upfront on what are you willing to pay, in terms of time, effort, persistence and opportunity cost to achieve your goal?

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

Where possible choose fields of work which inspire you and which also align with your values.

Even though for many of us our work or business goals may be set by others, earning a living honestly and honorably is a value with which most of us can identify. If business goals are in line with organizational expectations, consistent with company goals and our work efforts contribute to something we value - then we are much more likely to commit to the goal.

Simply buying into somebody else's goal is less likely to lead you to the secure goal commitment that drives success. Understanding why a goal is desirable and how it meets with your vision of success is key.

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.

Key here is to enjoy and recognize the successes along the way – reward; evaluate whether your tactics are working and that your effort is paying off to best advantage – reconsider; and where necessary adjust your approaches to optimize the bang for buck of your time spend – recalibrate.

If your goals quietly slip into irrelevancy you will find it hard to stay motivated. To avoid this, track your successes weekly to make sure you are still on the best route to goal achievement and that your goal directions are still relevant and important.

5. Consider Task Complexity When Setting Goals

Once commitment, degree of challenge and feedback opportunities are in place, setting goals effectively translates into allocating the right amount of time to clearly stated smart and measurable actions.

So it simply makes sense that if you are heading into a complex challenge or unknown waters then extra time must be built in to your goal timetable. When a course of action is new to us we simply don’t know what we don’t know – (for more on this see the Johari window.) It is easy for our motivation to take a hammering if we have committed to an unrealistic timetable that simply doesn’t match the complexity of the task.

Locke and Latham's work on goal setting theory confirms the use and success of using SMART goals to avoid this trap. This discipline forces you to evaluate the risks and real time implications that will influence goal delivery timeframes.

Remember when the expected learning curve is steep and/or the task complexity is high, ensure that you build some extra fat into the goal deadline to avoid the demoralizing effect of overpromising and under delivering.

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