Goal setting theory from Locke and Latham

There is a lot of theory available behind setting goals. Which is good, because I believe setting goals for yourself is the number one way to keep improving and growing. Sometimes you just go out and do stuff, at other times you’ll need some theory to back you up. Today, it’s about this theory.

Locke and Latham published a big work called “A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance” in 1990. These doctors studied the theory of goal setting, and they discovered five elements that need to be in place for us to achieve our goals. Or to look at it another way: if these five elements are there, the probability that we will complete our goals goes way up.

Here they are:

  1. Clarity: This is the S in SMART (specific). In order to be able to keep motivated, you need to have a very clear direction. Almost every time I’m giving up on my goals, it is because I didn’t clarify them enough.
  2. Challenge: If the goals are too easy, we won’t be inspired to go out of our way to complete them. If they are too difficult, we’ll probably give up too. They need to be just out of reach, so you will definitely have to stretch a bit. Research has shown that this leads to better results.
  3. Commitment: If you know why you’re trying to accomplish a specific goal, you’ll be far more committed. You need to be 100% behind it from the start. Visualizing why you want to complete the goal can contribute to this.
  4. Feedback: Most goals will take some time to finish. To complete your goals, you will need a system in place which will provide you with feedback. Feedback allows you to course-correct if necessary. Receiving positive feedback can be a huge motivation to continue.
  5. Task complexity: While the big goal can be daunting, the individual steps need to be not too complex. The easier they are, the higher the change of completing your goal.

Of these five elements, two jump out to me: challenge and task complexity. If you set out to put some new goals on paper, don’t be afraid to think big and set up a good challenge for yourself. Something that will really make you feel proud after finishing. Secondly, make sure to take some time to come up with easy to finish subtasks. Personally, this has really worked for me to finish some of my biggest goals.

This post is part of my daily newsletter on productivity and product management. Sign up now.