Goal setting for success

The Holiday Season is over—it was delightful in our household, but I am sure I’m not alone in looking forward to a reprieve until next year. With the end of the season come the inevitable New Year’s resolutions—take off the extra pounds, make a new (healthy) habit, save money . . . .

I’ve noticed that SMART goals are popular these days: that’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-framed. SMART goals are structured to ensure clear, immediate feedback, which is helpful.  For example, applying the acronym to “I need to lose weight” leads to “I need to lose 15 pounds before the wedding, and I need to weigh myself every day to ensure that I am on track.”  I know which of those two goals I think is more likely to be successful.

The concept of SMART goals was originally developed for evaluating projects during the planning stage, and as you can see, they’ve proved a useful way to evaluate some kinds of personal goals as well.

Thinking about the ways people approach making New Year’s resolutions led me to the internet, to see if there’s any research out there that might shed some light on the subject.  I found a treasure trove—a summary of 35 years of study, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey,” by Edwin A. Locke, University of Maryland and Gary P. Latham, University of Toronto.

It turns out science confirms that making and striving for goals is in itself important.

A long-term study of managers at ATT shows that conscious goal setting leads to action, and to success. Goal setting increases both performance and satisfaction—especially among people who are pro-active and “purposeful.”  Choosing a goal and pursuing it allows people to feel more in control of their lives, and it also directs their focus to what’s important to them and enables them to ignore what is not.  So, on a day-to-day basis, they are more likely to act on what’s important to them, with the result that they are less likely to miss opportunities.

The research review had more to say about how goals affect performance:  goals encourage effort, encourage persistence, and encourage learning related to their goal.  And the research distinguishes between goals for simple versus complex tasks.  Performance goals are about achieving a specific, simple outcome (like, “I want to lose 15 pounds before the wedding,”) and learning goals are more about building skills (“I want to learn how to maintain a healthy weight.”)

What’s important to known when setting goals is that motivation and strategies for success for simple and complex goals are necessarily different.  (By the way, Dan Pink talks very entertainingly about how motivation differs for each type of goal in Drive and in his TED presentation.)

I’m excited about my upcoming workshop in Goal Setting for Success at Whatcom Community College.  We’ll cover the strategies that lead to success for both types of goals, with hypnosis sessions to provide support for motivation and for clear visualization of a successful outcome.

I’ve written before about the evidence that visualizing a healthy outcome healthy outcome and a healthy lifestyle under hypnosis has the same kind of power as actual experience.  So, under hypnosis, I’ll guide everyone in visualizing themselves 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years into the future—as they will be when they reach their goals.

One of the odd things about goals is that they loom large when we’re looking up at them from the starting point, but once we’ve achieved them, they don’t seem so daunting.  That’s easier to see with SMART goals, but long-term goals have the same effect.  I remember deciding to go to college when I was a mom in my early thirties—just making the decision felt like a huge step.  At forty, I had a Master’s degree and a basket of new skills that I had built one class at a time, and while I was proud of what I’d done, I didn’t think about it much—I was already focused on the next set of goals.

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