Goal setting and why it is important

In my day job, I’ve started making videos. Instructional videos for students on different aspects of the study experience.

I’m being guided by a very capable colleague who knows the ropes of creating video content. This is good, because I suck at it.

One of the hidden benefits of making video content is that it encourages you to write scripts, rather than blog posts.

Scripts tend to be more conversational and hence more accesesible.

The first one I wrote was on Goal Setting.

I’ve reproduced the basics of that script below, with a few modified references so it isn’t totally student focused.

As nervous as I am about continuing to venture into the world of video production, I know it is the right thing to do. It is a powerful medium and forces one to think about how they communicate.

Will I eventually put those videos up here on my blog? Probably, once I have got to the point of not hiding in the corner when I see myself on video.

In the meantime, some thoughts on Goal Setting.


Hello everybody!

Welcome to this instructional video on goal setting.

My name is Gareth. I work in Health, Counselling and Disability Services and I have a very strong personal interest in helping people (myself included) build wellbeing and productivity.

What I want to cover in this video is the following:

  • what is goal setting?
  • why should you set goals?
  • how do set goals in a way that leads to the best outcomes?
  • Where to start with your own goal setting

What is goal setting?

At its simplest, goal setting is the process of identifying something that you want to accomplish or achieve AND outlining how you are going to achieve it.

For example – I want to get an undergraduate psychology degree (is part of a goal) – it stipulates the outcome I want. It can be enhanced further by articulating ‘how’ that outcome will be achieved.

‘I want to get an undergraduate psychology degree and I will achieve that by getting a credit average on each of the necessary topics over the three years of study required.’

Now we have a desired outcome and how you are going to get there.

And maybe you are looking at that goal and thinking – well I’d probably need to set additional goals to describe how to get the credit average. And you’d be right! Well get to that in just a tic.

Why should you set goals?

First, let’s spend a moment explaining why setting goals is important

Put simply, setting goals increases the likelihood of you achieving what you want to achieve.

People who set goals, on average, show higher levels of performance in the area in which they have set goals.

  • So, students who set goals tend to show higher academic performance.
  • Workers (like me) who set work goals show greater work performance and productivity.
  • Individuals who set personal goals are more likely to achieve higher levels of life satisfaction.

Why is this the case?

We think it is for a few reasons:

  • Clarity and purpose – Goals help people clarify and articulate what is important to them. If I sit down to write out my goals it forces me to reflect on what it is I want in life and this helps me prioritise what I should focus on. Goals direct your attention and what you pay attention to grows.
  • Motivation – Goals provide motivation and something to work towards. Humans have a natural tendency for exploration and goals give us a direction and purpose for that exploration.
  • Positive affect – When we set and achieve goals we get positive ‘feels’ (we feel good) and that positive feeling encourages us to set more goals. Humans like achieving things and setting goals helps us make that process more conscious.
  • Persistence – Goals help us persist at a task for longer because they remind us of what we wanted and what we needed to do to get there. If we haven’t written out our goals we can kinda pretend we never had them and deviate from a path that is difficult but ultimately rewarding.
  • Self-monitoring and self-regulation – goals help us learn how to self-monitor and self-regulate. They teach us to consistently assess the discrepancy between where we want to be and where we our now and that helps us adjust what we need to do in the present moment to reduce that discrepancy.

How do you set goals in a way that maximises the likelihood you will achieve them?

Not all goals are created equal!

How you phrase or construct a goal is important, as is the context in which you set the goal.

Let’s look at a few important features of a ‘good’ goal.

  • Make it SMART

You’ve probably heard this acronym before. A SMART goal is one that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

What does that mean?

Let’s use an example to illustrate:

You might have the goal of taking up meditation and you say to yourself ‘I’d like to mediate more’. This is a worthy endeavour but not a well articulated goal, but we can make it much better using the SMART criteria.

Articulated in a SMART way: ‘I will use the Smiling Mind app to mediate for 10 minutes, each day, after lunch for 2 weeks to see if it helps with my stress levels’.

Now you have a goal that is specific (how, when for how long), measurable (how long, how many days, when), achievable (just 10 minutes a day to start off with), relevant (to help stress) and time-bound (test it for 2 weeks).

Whenever you form an intention to do something (a fledgling goal) try to articulate that goal according to the SMART criteria.

  • A good goal doesn’t usually exist on its own

Remember that goal from earlier – ‘I want to get an undergraduate psychology degree and I will achieve that by getting a credit average on each of the necessary topics over the three years of study required.’

You can see that goal will benefit from some additional goals that describe how to get the credit average, which might look like:

  • I’ll devote 2 hours each working day to doing the readings from my topics and take notes
  • I’ll start my assignments, where possible, 4 weeks before their due date
  • I’ll create and maintain a clean and tidy workspace so I have somewhere to go each day to study

A good way to think about this is that there are outcome goals (things we want to achieve) and process goals (what we will do in order to achieve it). You may end up with many more process goals than outcome ones.

  • A good goal is usually connected to something meaningful to you

Say you decided to get more exercise. You set yourself a goal to spend a couple of weeks walking around the block for 20 minutes each day before dinner – which is a SMART goal.

To increase the likelihood that you will do it though, you could think more about ‘why’ you want to get more exercise. Perhaps it is about being healthy. Perhaps it is about creating an opportunity to spend more fun time with family. Perhaps it is about being more connected to nature.

Try to connect your goals to a higher purpose or meaning. This is particularly relevant when you aren’t super keen to engage in the activity itself, but know it is important to do. For example, I am nervous about getting into video production, but I know that it will really help me improve how I communicate wellbeing and productivity concepts to other people. Thus my video creation goals are attached to becoming a better science communicator.

  • A good goal outlines what you want to achieve, rather than what you want to avoid

When I was younger, I was very neurotic around food (most people would say I still am).

I used to set up all these rules about what foods I should avoid.

It turned my world into essentially a non-stop collection of threats I had to escape. It was not motivating. It did not make me healthier.

Instead, I had to shift my thinking towards what I should eat for health and wellbeing. This shifted my perspective to one of approach, rather than avoid. Now I focus on what foods I need to get into my diet [as an aside, I really like the Daily Dozen Challenge]

Turns out this principle holds in goal setting as well.

So, thinking from an academic perspective it is better to set a goal around ‘getting a credit average’ than it is to set a goal around ‘not failing any topics’.

Strive for what you want to happen, not what you want to avoid happening.

  • Consider the difficulty of the goal:

If we are talking about single incident outcomes (e.g. an upcoming assignment, deadline), generally try to set goals that are just outside of your ability level – for example, if you usually get a job done in 2 weeks, aim for 12 days. This pushes you to operate just at the edge of your ability which leads to greater growth and satisfaction (over the long term).

If we are talking about trying to get a habit formed (e.g. meditate everyday), then set goals at a level you believe you can achieve reliably and then increase it or change it once it becomes a habit. So you might initially start with 5 minutes a day and then expand that over time. The goal is to get the habit formed first, before getting the outcome perfect.

  • When it comes to your learning, have a mix of mastery and performance goals

What are they?

Performance goals are ones where you outline the performance level you want to achieve (e.g. a GPA >5.5). Performance goals are good and you should set them.

However , when we focus only on performance goals, we lose sight of the fact that learning is about knowledge and wisdom acquisition, not just grades.

That is where mastery goals come in.

A mastery goal is one where you articulate what it is you want to learn (e.g. I want to be able to name all the major parts of the human body).

A mixture of mastery and performance goals means you don’t lose sight of the fact learning is an activity of expanding one’s mind, not just reaching numerical outcomes.

  • Goals aren’t just about achievements, they can also be about the kind of person you want to be, the life you want to lead

This is where more abstract goals can be good. Not all goals have to be about specific achievements.

  • ‘I want to be the kind of person that treats people with respect’
  • ‘I want to try to see the funny side of life where possible’
  • ‘I want to always be having an adventure’

You’ll notice that these goals aren’t really articulated as SMART goals, however you can supplement these kinds of abstract goals with more specific ones.

For example, ‘I want to be the kind of person that treats people with respect’ could be supplemented with a goal along the lines of:

‘When someone initiates a conversation with me, I will make sure to ask them about their day and listen closely to their answer’.

Goals can be part of the process of defining who we are as a person, not just what we want to achieve in life.

Try this quick handout as a way of connecting values (who we want to be) and goals.

  • Don’t limit your goal setting to just your studies or work

You can harness the power of goals in areas of your life other than just your studies.

Set goals for your other interests and activities as well:

– If you play sport, set some goals for that

– If you do something artistic, set some goals for that

– If you play a musical instrument, set some goals for that

There was an interesting study (linked below) that showed that students who set goals in their personal lives showed better study outcomes. There is something uniquely focusing about goal setting that might have positive impacts across multiple domains in your life.

So look at setting goals in all aspects of your life.

  • If your goals start to feel very anxiety provoking, then dial them back in terms of difficulty or number

Goals are there to motivate you. They should feel like a challenge, but an achievable challenge. If you get to the point that your goals feel like a burden, a ‘ball and chain’ and elicit anxiety, then you should dial them back in terms of difficulty and number.

I’ve seen students bury themselves under too many goals, so it isn’t the case that ‘if some goals are good, then lots of goals should be amazing!’ Don’t make the goal setting process too punishing.

  • Once you’ve made some goals, make sure to allocate time to achieving them

Good goals can’t save you if you don’t allocate the time to making them happen. If you are setting a lot of goals but not getting around to do them, then consider whether you might be over committed – too many things to do in the time you have available to do it.

I see this commonly in myself and others. We all have a curiosity and a desire to do varied and interesting work which means we say yes to many things, but this can impair our ability to make significant progress in a single area.

When setting goals, have your calendar/diary nearby. Check that you have the time and mental space to allocate to those goals?

  • Finally, if you are feeling brave, consider making your goals public in some way

For some, a public commitment towards their goals increases the likelihood they will achieve them.

That is one reason why we like to tell people what we are doing on social media. It is a form of public commitment.

However, you don’t need to go that far. It might be as simple as expressing your goals to a close friend or family member.

Then if you want, you can put in a public domain (e.g. social media) or share with a relevant group (e.g. a study group).

Where to start?

So you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed, given everything I just said about what makes for good goals.

However, my goal (pun intended) was not to overload you, but simply get you thinking about what good goal setting entails.

With that in mind, here is some specific advice to get you started setting goals and becoming more familiar and comfortable with the process.

I call it My 7-point goal setting challenge.

  1. Outcome goal – set yourself a goal for the remainder of the year that has a very specific achievement focus to it (e.g., finish first draft of book, create a wellbeing course). Connect it to your work or studies.
  2. Mastery goals – for the outcome you identified above, set some goals about what you’d like to learn in the process. For example, if you indicated writing a book was your goal, articulate what you want to learn about writing along the way.
  3. Productivity goals – articulate clearly how you will use your time during the week in order to achieve the above. This means weekly goals/ tasks in your calendar and mark them as you achieve them (i.e. a visual record).
  4. Ability goals – what might you need to get better at to achieve the goals above? What could you do to be better in those areas? Set some goals related to how you’ll improve any weaker skill areas.
  5. Personal goals – if the goals above are professional ones, also set yourself some personal goals related to your hobbies, interests, pastimes.
  6. Put these goals up somewhere you can see them – on the fridge, on post-it notes on the computer, in your work space, in the front of your diary. You want them somewhere that you will see them regularly so you are reminded of what you are working towards.
  7. Feel free to adjust them if needed – it is OK to revisit and revise goals based on changed in circumstances, desires or motivations. Goals don’t have to be set in stone, but their presence helps us self-reflect regularly and adjust as necessary.

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