What Is the Psychology of Setting Goals? (With Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 19, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Setting goals in your personal and professional life can help motivate you and lead you toward success. This involves creating an action plan to guide your progress and achieve your goals. Learning more about setting goals and how to achieve them successfully can help you develop new skills and knowledge. In this article, we explain what the psychology of setting goals is, discuss goal-setting theory, tell you about three goal-setting frameworks, and offer a list of benefits of setting goals.

What is the psychology of setting goals?

The psychology of setting goals is creating an objective you want to achieve, typically within a specific time frame. An example of a personal goal may be to start walking 10,000 steps a day, while an example of a professional goal may be increasing your monthly sales by $5,000. Setting goals allows you to create an action plan you can easily follow to develop new skills or knowledge and achieve your objective.

Related: How to Achieve Your Goals in 6 Steps (With Benefits)

What is the goal-setting theory?

A popular psychological theory about creating goals is called goal-setting theory. Edwin A. Locke developed this theory and published it in an article called Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentive in 1968. He states that setting goals that are specific and measurable are more effective than unclear goals. Many companies use this theory to motivate employees and help them feel a sense of achievement when they complete their goals. The theory contains the following five principles to help you set effective goals:

  • Clarity: Ensure your goals are clear and specific. You can do so by including measurable goals or time frames to monitor your progress.

  • Challenge: Create goals that challenge you to ensure you're engaged in the task. If your goals are too easy, you may not feel the same sense of satisfaction when you achieve them.

  • Commitment: Understand the purpose of setting the goal so you can commit to it. It's important to be committed so you do everything you can to achieve the goal.

  • Feedback: When setting professional goals, ask for feedback from managers or colleagues throughout the goal-achieving process. This can help you assess your progress better to improve the chance of you being successful.

  • Task complexity: Try to create small goals that help you work towards achieving a large one. This ensures your tasks aren't overly complex and helps you assess your progress better.

Related: Why Is Goal Setting Important to a Successful Job Search? (With Goal Types)

Goal setting frameworks

Many experts in the psychology field view Locke as a pioneer of goal-setting, but there are many notable psychologists and industry experts who created theories about goals and goal setting after him. Here are four well-known goal-setting frameworks you may be familiar with:

ABC of goals

Psychologist Frank L. Smoll created a theory called the ABC of Goals. ABC is an acronym that stands for achievable, believable, and committed. Smoll believed that when you create goals that follow this acronym, you're more likely to be successful. To create goals that are achievable, it's important to be realistic. Create goals with an endpoint you can work towards. For example, instead of setting a goal that just states you want to improve your communication skills, set a goal to present a speech in front of 50 people to express your newly improved communication skills.

If you don't believe you can achieve your goals, it may not motivate you to work towards them. Finally, ensure you can commit to your goals. If you want to present a speech to 50 people, you may consider taking speech classes once a week. If this class isn't something you can commit to, adjust your goal or your schedule so you can work towards it.

Related: Setting Goals to Improve Your Career

SMART goals

James Cunningham, Arthur Miller, and George Doran published an article titled, There's a S.M.A.R.T Way to Write Management's Goals and Objectives. This article outlines a different way to create goals and objectives effectively. S.M.A.R.T is an acronym that stands for the following elements of this goal-setting strategy:

  • Specific: Like Locke's goal-setting theory, this strategy highlights the importance of ensuring goals are clear and specific. This allows you to understand what you're working toward as you progress.

  • Measurable: Create goals you can measure so you can regularly assess your progress. For example, if you want to increase sales, set a specific amount you want to build them by to monitor your progress.

  • Achievable: Ensure your goals are realistic so you can actually achieve them. If they're too challenging, you may not feel motivated to work towards them.

  • Relevant: Consider your core values, personality, and overall life and career objectives when creating new goals. This ensures they're relevant to you and what you hope to achieve in life.

  • Time-based: Create a timeline when setting goals to help you determine how much time you need for each stage. This can help you stay focused and allows you to assess your progress easily.

Related: SMART Goals: Objectives for Your Career

SMARTER goals

While the SMART goal-setting strategy is widely used and accepted, industry experts have added two additional elements to it. Some goal-setters add two elements to the acronym to change it from SMART to SMARTER. The first five elements are the same as the original strategy, but the ER stands for evaluate and readjust. The sixth step in this strategy, evaluate, means it's important to assess your goals every day. This makes it more likely that you can achieve your goals, as you're constantly assessing whether you're making progress.

If you're not making progress, you can readjust your approach in the seventh stage of this goal-setting strategy. This means you can try different approaches or methods to work toward your goals until you find one that's successful.

HARD goals

Mark Murphy created another alternative to SMART goals called HARD goals. He presented this strategy in his book, Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All and They'll Give You Even More. HARD is another acronym that stands for the following elements:

  • Heartfelt: Murphy states that it's important for your goals to be heartfelt, meaning you feel a sense of attachment to them. This makes it more likely that you may pursue and achieve your goals.

  • Animated: This strategy encourages you to visualize your goals and how you may feel when you achieve them. You can do this in a number of ways, such as creating a mood board or picturing how your life may improve if you achieve your goal.

  • Required: When setting goals, think about whether they're required for your success or your employer's. If the goal won't aid you or the company, you may want to create one that does.

  • Difficult: Murphy encourages people to create goals that are difficult to challenge them. This challenge can help motivate them and ensure they don't become passive when working towards their goals.

What are the benefits of setting goals?

If you're considering using a goal-setting strategy to improve your knowledge, skills, or experience, here are the benefits of doing so:

Provides direction

Creating goals helps guide you in your personal or professional life. They can provide direction so you're constantly working towards becoming a better person or employee. You can set short-term and long-term goals so you always have an aim.

Offers satisfaction

Achieving your goals can help you feel more satisfied in life. This can help you feel more positive about your capabilities. It can also improve your self-esteem and confidence, encouraging you to keep setting and achieving goals.

Sets clear expectations

If you create goals with your manager, you know exactly what they expect of you. This helps you work to meet their expectations so you can become a stronger employee. Doing so can lead to positive outcomes, such as promotions or raises.

Creates priorities

Once you create your goals, you can determine which activities in your life to prioritize. For example, if your personal goal is to run a marathon in six months, you may start to prioritize healthy eating. This can also help aid your decision-making skills as you may have to decide between certain activities.

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