Goal setting theory is based on the idea that we can sometimes have desires to attain clearly identifiable goals. As a result an individual may become motivated to pursue a course of action in an attempt to reach this goal. In most cases the end goal is what provides the reward rather than the action or journey we take to attain it. The more effective a goal is, the more motivated someone will be to achieve it. The effectiveness of a goal is influenced by three key features, these being: proximity, difficulty and specificity.
Firstly, with regard to proximity, an ideal goal should be achievable within a reasonably short amount of time. What is reasonable will vary depending on the person, but in general if achieving a goal seems like it will take forever it probably will. If we can see the finish line we are more likely to reach it. If we can’t see the finish line, things can often seem hopeless because we feel as if we are drifting and getting nowhere. I know many people, myself included, have felt this way about past goals. Many people will be feeling this way now regarding their current goals and aspirations.
This may explain why often we are more motivated to achieve smaller goals like losing a dress size, or losing two or three kilos, as opposed to entering a body building competition. The latter just seems like it would take too long, whereas reaching the first two goals seems achievable.
Consider the following example: An unfit person who hasn't done a lot of running in the past may set a goal to run a marathon. While running a marathon is a valid long term goal for someone in this position, it may ultimately prove to be too ambitious. What is likely to happen is that after a few weeks of training this person would start to feel disheartened. As a result their motivation will decrease and they may start to feel they will never achieve their goal. This is not to say long-term goals like running a marathon aren't effective. It merely means that by splitting up or chunking a large goal into a series of smaller goals, you will be more likely to succeed.
If this same person had initially set a goal to be able to run 3 kilometers for example, after a few weeks they may be able to attempt this and experience some success. From here they could then increase the distance from 3 to 5 kilometers and so on until they reach their goal of running a marathon.
The second aspect of an effective goal is difficulty. An effective goal should present us with a challenge, while not seeming impossible to achieve. Put another way, a goal should not be too hard nor too easy to complete. When the difficulty of a goal presents us with a realistic challenge we are more likely to be optimally motivated and thus more likely to succeed.
Thirdly, specificity refers to description or definition of the goal. Essentially if a goal is not clearly defined or well understood, then it is very hard to know exactly what we are working towards. Alternatively, a clearly defined goal that is well understood puts us in a position where we know exactly what it is that we are trying to achieve.
For example a goal of exercising, or looking better, is not very specific and doesn't provide a very clear or well-understood goal. To make these goals more effective we would simply elaborate on exactly what we would like to do. For example your goal might be to run twice a week for 30 minutes or to lose two dress sizes.
How might goal setting theory relate to exercise motivation and change?
Goal setting theory is, and will be, important when considering any major life change you will make now and in the future. This is not to say that in the absence of goal setting you will be unable to achieve goals. It simply means that by setting realistic goals, your chances of succeeding will be greatly increased.
An effective goal can provide direction and assurance that you’re on the right track. An ineffective goal can leave you feeling confused and disheartened. When you set effective goals you have something to aim for. When you have a target you’re more likely to be directive and focused in your efforts. This equates to being more efficient which allows you to achieve your goals in a timely manner.
There is little doubt that goal-setting is of high importance and relevance. However we can often fall into some common traps. What people don’t know is that IT’S THE THINKING PROCESSES THAT OCCUR PRIOR TO SETTING GOALS THAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF GOAL SETTING. What this means is that you will likely benefit from spending a greater amount of time at the front end of the goal setting process figuring out exactly what it is that you’d like to achieve. Once you know what you truly want to do, you can then begin the process of setting effective goals. By putting in some quality thinking time at the front and following the basics of goal setting, anyone can set an effective goal that will have a good chance of being successful.
Time spent thinking about what you really want will always pay off in the end. If you don’t think it through, you are likely to rush into something that in the long term may not be that important to you. After all why would you do something that will likely be challenging or even extremely difficult if you only ‘sort of’ want to do it?
Take a moment to consider how goal setting theory is relevant to the things you have done in the past or the things you are doing currently.
Coming next in part 7 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
For a different perspective and a look at a new and highly effective method of goal setting check out the '2-3-4 approach to change' here http://www.exercisechange.co.nz/resources.html