The science of setting goals properly

What Science teaches us about goals

How do we plan effectively? How do we make sure we reach our goals? The answers to those questions are complex, because they involve elements of motivation, willpower, habits and skill. Yet, researchers have found few, clear rules that give guidance on how to set and execute goals properly. In the following paragraphs, I will describe those principles that found unequivocal backing in research. Much of that might sound easy, but I guarantee you that simply adhering to those ‘goal setting ground rules’ will change your life significantly.

1. The first rule is to set your goals unequivocally. One study demonstrates that unequivocal goals are reached far more often than goals that are formulated with ambiguity [1]. When you set your goals, make sure they are SMART, that is specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related. However, that applies only to short-term goals, i.e. those that usually do not reach beyond one year.

2. For long-term goals, stretch goals, that is those that seem audacious, nebulous and hard to reach, are the better call [2][3]. At least if you apply them in the right context. Researchers from a famous Harvard Business Review article suggest that stretch goals should only be applied in certain circumstances. The research is actually on organizations, but applies just as well to individuals according to my prior coaching experience. The picture below describes the scenarios.

Consider yourself successful, if you already reach most of your goals, and see ‘resources’ (in the picture above) as time. For instance, if you do not reach most of your goals and have no extra time available, try to go for SMART goals only and pursue small wins. If you’re already reaching most of your goals and seem to have still time available, shoot for the stars and set the most audacious stretch goals. [4][5]

3. Be motivated and perseverant. Quite obviously, research finds that low motivation and low self-regulation results in you reaching less goals. Those articles (1,2,3) help you build more will-power and eradicate negative habits.

4. Set the goals yourself. If other people set goals for you, the motivational effect will be much lower [6]. In an organizational context, for example when your boss, professor or teacher sets the goals, it is easy to draw the line between internally and externally set goals. But dig a bit deeper. Which of your goals are influenced by the beliefs of your parents, partners and (former) teachers? Are those goals truly yours? If you’re unsure, ask the ‘why-question’ several times until you have your answer. Understanding what truly matters to you and how your goals interrelate with that will give you a great, lasting performance boost.

5. Set goals that are in line with each other. Nothing is more detrimental to your goal setting than choosing conflicting goals. [7] As obvious as this is in theory, most people still set conflicting goals. When people set their goals, they usually think about a desired future. This is not bad, but it also makes you susceptible to planning unrealistically. The day only has 24 hours — and as investigated during our Unlimitix willpower article series, willpower depletes quickly. It’s a finite resource. And thus my recommendation: treat it as such.

[1] Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77, 81–112.

[2] Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (1990) A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ

[3] Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2013) New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Routledge Academic, London

[4] Stikin, S.B., Miller, C.C. & See, K.E. (2017). The stretch goal paradox. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:

[5] Reis, S. M., & McCoach, D. B. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: What do we know and where do we go? Gifted Child Quarterly, 44, 152–170

[6] Cott, C. & Finch, E. (1991). Goal-setting in physical therapy practice. Physiotherapy Canada, 43, 19–22.

[7] Locke, E.A., Smith, K.G., Erez, M.E., Chah, D.O., & Shaffer, A. (1994). The effects of intra-individual goal conflict on performance. Journal of Management, 20, 67–91.

We produce science-based content to boost your performance.