The Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation

Why We All Need to Take a Look at The Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation

Look, I know that sitting on your ass all day and doing nothing but binging Netflix and playing games sounds like the dream, but that’s no way to live.

Sure, it’s a blast, and the fact that you manage to binge several years’ worth of television in a matter of days might impress some people. But where will that take you in life?

Many people say, “I’m not lazy; I just can’t seem to motivate myself to do anything!”

Well, yeah, that’s kind of the problem everyone faces from time to time. Humans are natural procrastinators. If we don’t have something that will push us to keep going, we simply don’t go at all.

What Is the Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation?

Edwin Locke figured it out. Because he was a smart cookie, Edwin also figured out the close relationship between motivation and setting goals. The trick, however, is to set measurable goals.

Goal-setting and task performance have a close relationship because setting goals improves performance. So The Gospel of Locke essentially says that people who set challenging goals are more motivated to achieve them.

Easy goals that aren’t so difficult to achieve can serve as motivators, but people essentially love a challenge. Therefore, easy goals leave us bored and ultimately unmotivated.

There are five major principles of goal-setting:

  • The goal has to be clear and measurable. Ambiguous goals lead to failure.
  • Challenging professional and personal goals are motivational, while easy goals aren’t a good incentive.
  • You have to be committed to your goal.
  • Goal setting and task motivation are closely linked, but they can’t help you achieve your goal if there is no feedback. Without feedback, you aren’t aware of your progress, making it more likely to abandon your pursuit of achieving it.
  • Task complexity is one of the determinants of whether you’ll achieve your goal or not. If your goal is complex, make sure to set aside enough time to achieve it. Don’t expect miracles from yourself because that only results in disappointment.

It seems simple, right? Locke succeeded where many have failed before — in building a practically useful theory of goal setting and motivation. But does it really work?

Does It Work on Everyone (And WIll It Work on Me)?

Nothing in life is universal. Because humans are so different and unique, there’s no universal anything, let alone a theory on motivation. However, this theory is so simple (yet all-encompassing) that it should work as long as you abide by the five basic principles.

Let’s put that in more simple terms. So let’s say you’re trying to learn a new language. That’s your goal, right? You want to learn a new language this year?

No, wrong. That shouldn’t be your goal because it’s unclear and vague. How proficient do you want to become? How much time will you set aside for this task? Are you a natural when it comes to learning new languages, or is that out of your skillset?

If you say that you want to learn a new language and become fairly fluent in it over the course of a year, that’s a better goal. If you say that you’ll set aside 30 minutes every day to practice the language, that’s even better. Now you have a clear, challenging goal. You’ve taken into account the complexity of the goal and allowed yourself enough time to achieve it.

But what about feedback and commitment? You need to find an appropriate way to get feedback on your progress. Maybe find a native speaker who doesn’t mind going over your progress with you, or enroll in a course.

Either way, receiving feedback (or not receiving it) goes hand in hand with your commitment. If the feedback is lacking, you’ll find yourself becoming less and less committed over time.

How Can I Make It Work for Me?

Aside from making sure you stay committed to your goal, you can make the goal-setting theory work for you by working on your self-efficiency levels.

If you have high levels of self-efficiency, you’ll believe in yourself and your ability to achieve your goal. Paired with the feedback and the motivation that stems from goal-setting, you’ll be more likely to achieve the ultimate goal, and vice-versa.

Small Steps Can Help You Achieve Your Goals

Even with firm, measurable, and clear goals, we sometimes fail to achieve them. To avoid that, help yourself even further by setting deadlines.

One of the basic principles of this theory is to give yourself enough time to reach your goal. Complex tasks require more time, and given that this theory is all about reaching challenging goals, each of them will probably require quite a bit of time.

However, people operate better and are more efficient and productive when they have a clear deadline. So if you’re looking to learn a new language “this year,” why not set a clearer deadline and say by which date you’d like to achieve your goal?

Also, make sure to set positive goals. Negative goals that demand you stop doing something or not fail at something aren’t as effective as positive goals. So instead of saying that you “can’t lose any clients,” set a goal that you’ll nurture the relationships with existing clients and maintain your client base at its current size.

Aside from this, to help yourself achieve your goals, make sure you:

  • Make a plan for potential problems and obstacles.
  • Stay positive if you aren’t progressing as fast as you want to.

How This Is Applicable to Your Personal Life

People mostly use this theory as a tool to improve their employees’ effectiveness. Managers encourage their employees to set their own goals, or they set them for them.

However, the goal-setting theory has more merit than merely being a managerial tool. It can also help us improve our personal lives.

Who said that your only goals should be job-related? Why not set goals that will help you be a better person or a better spouse, parent, friend, etc.? Instead of setting a goal that will get you that promotion you’ve been dreaming about, set a goal to be a better listener or a more attentive person.

Always make a clear plan that defines the goal and list the steps you need to make to achieve it. Your conscious ideas and the thoughts that you’ll achieve something will drive you towards actually achieving it. Before you know it, you’ll be a better person!