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3 Lessons On Effective Goal Setting From Behavioral Psychology

· 6 min read
goals should be like a lighthouse. they guide us in the right direction as we act.

This time of the year, goals and reflections are top of mind for many of us. Setting a goal well, and it can propel you to glory and success. Setting goals ineffectively, and they could become distractions, or worse, unnecessary anxieties.

How to set goals the right way? We look at three lessons on goal setting from behavioral psychology.

December is here! The year 2022 is reaching its end. In this last month of the year, goals and reflections are top of mind for many of us. Maybe they are work related, like company objectives, revenue targets, project deliverables, and career development goals. Or they are personal like family, fitness, and learning new things.

Not to mention New Year's Resolutions! An annual ritual for countless people, including myself. And from my own experience, they are easier to make than to keep!

Setting a goal well, and it can propel you to glory and success. Setting goals ineffectively, and they could become distractions, or worse, unnecessary anxieties.

But how to set goals the right way? Let's look at three lessons from behavioral psychology.

Goals Should Be Set by You, Even When They Don’t Start off That Way

In 1985, Deci and Ryan proposed the Self-Determination Theory, a framework to understand how humans make decisions and take actions. Self-determination theory posits that we have three basic innate, psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

  • Autonomy: Being in control of our own destiny. The freedom to make our own choices.

This is why we are more motivated to work on goals set by us, compared to those set by others and assigned to us.

One HeroMode user shared this anecdote:

"Sometimes when I work at night, a support ticket would arrive at our company email. Once in a while, the ticket can be quite complicated to resolve. When this happens, I might start the investigation on my own, even late into the night. The thought that I might be able to resolve the ticket so my teammates won't have to worry about it tomorrow is really motivating and keeps me going. And then, sometimes, in the middle of my investigation, a teammate might message me and say, 'Hey, can you look into this ticket.' Somehow, suddenly, I feel my drive evaporate. This is so weird, because I was investigating the ticket in the hope to help my teammates anyways."

The exact same goal, set by others and assigned to you, has very different psychological effect than if it's set by you.

But realistically, most of us work in teams. We have common goals and often we are assigned goals top-down. What do we do then?

The same HeroMode user continued:

"After I started using HeroMode, when I work on a support ticket, even if it has not been assigned to me yet, I add the task as a HeroMode quest for myself. Yes, we do have an internal support ticket assignment system, so this seems like an extra step. But it's helpful for me to see all the things I have to do. Plus, the quest feels 'mine', in the sense that I have enlisted myself to do it."

Goals Should Have a Deep, Personal Purpose

Very much related to autonomy is the second lesson on goal setting: identify your purpose for the goal. Motivation is deeply personal. Even if you share the same goal with others, you are likely driven by different purposes.

So it's very important to identify and be continuously aware of your own deep purpose of your goal. This takes self reflection, or what it might feel like self interrogation. But it's a necessary process to understand what brings your life joy and fulfillment.

For example, we asked (or interrogated?) a HeroMode user why they have an annual goal to read 50 books:

  • Why do you want to read 50 books?
  • "Because a friend of mine did the 50 books challenge previously."
  • Why do you set the same goal as this friend?
  • "Because our conversations are always interesting and entertaining."
  • Why do you find these conversations interesting?
  • "Hmmm... now that I think of it, these conversations were interesting because I learn new things that my friend had read about."
  • Why do you want to learn new things?
  • "Okay... this is getting very personal... I suppose I don't want to miss out on good ideas and good tools?"
  • Why is it important to you to keep in touch with good ideas and good tools?
  • "I want to be good at my job. So it's important that I stay up-to-date with the latest and the greatest."

As you get deeper to the true purpose of your goal, you learn what are your intrinsic motivators. Your intrinsic motivators are your secret weapon that drives you to take on difficult challenges.

Goals Should Be a Lighthouse, Not a Finish Line

This last lesson might sound paradoxical. The goal of setting goals should not be about reaching the goals. It should be about driving us in the right direction in terms of taking everyday actions and making meaningful progress.

Why is that?

Let's do a thought experiment. Becoming fit is a common goal for many of us. But "fit" is not a definitive status. It's a lifestyle. And a lifestyle requires continuous habits to maintain. So there's no finish line to cross when it comes to "becoming fit". Instead, we need to step-by-step put in the time and effort and build a fit lifestyle.

But how about goals with a definitive status change, like landing a job, or buying a house? Well, if you are reading this, chances are you have set and reached goals like these before. How did you feel when that happened? Even for goals with a seemingly definitive status change, it's a long process that makes the "definitive" very murky. More importantly, these goals are almost always followed by an "and-then-what". Yes you have landed a new job, but a new grind begins to learn and do well in the new environment. Yes you have bought a house, but a new grind begins to set up utilities and do the necessary repairs.

Such endless cycles of goal chasing can feel exhausting.

There's nothing wrong with setting these goals. But what requires adjustment is our mindset. We should not see goals as finish lines. But rather, they are there to shine a light and direct us in the right direction.

So, set your own goals with clear personal purposes, and understand that you should celebrate progress and milestones along the way.