The scientific principles of effective goal setting

When it comes to achieving our New Years resolutions the statistics are pretty dismal. Research from the University of Scranton as published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that only 8% of people are successful in achieving their New Year resolutions. Similar research conducted by Psychology Professor, Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire found that only 12% of people actually achieved their New Year resolutions. Given such low levels of success you may be tempted to conclude that goal setting doesn’t work!

It’s not that goal setting doesn’t work. Research shows it does, the challenge is we’re never taught the science of effective goal setting. 

A brief history of goal setting theory

Goal setting as a means of bringing about change and improved performance is not a new idea. Nearly 2300 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about four causes of change. One of the causes he identified was what he called the final causes – an exploration into why things came about. Aristotle identified the final cause as one of the as change happening as the result of a defined purpose or end goal. The idea being that purpose or an end result is a powerful catalyst for change. Thousands of years ago Aristotle observed the power of goals to direct action towards an end result. 

It wasn’t until 1935 that the first empirical studies of goal setting were conducted by the British philosopher, Cecil Alec Mace. Cecil Alec Mace discredited the widely held idea at the time that workers are primarily incentivised by money. Instead he found that people are motivated by the accomplishment of goals

The 5 scientific principles of effective goal setting

The father of modern goal setting theory is Dr. Edwin Locke, who expanded upon the work of Cecil Alec Mace and described his findings on goal setting in the 1968 paper, “Towards a theory of task motivation and incentives”. This research paper laid the foundation for the science of modern goal setting.

Dr. Edwin Locke worked closely with Dr. Gary Latham for many years researching the theory of goal setting. Their joint research identified the following five principles of effective goal setting:

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Feedback
  5. Task complexity

Their research found that the likely hood of achiving of our goals is directly related to the extent that these five principles are present. Let’s explore each of these five goal setting principles in more detail.

1. Set clear and specific goals

”The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated.” — Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting

Vague and unclear goals are one of the biggest stumbling blocks of goal setting. 

Effective goals are clear and specific, the state exactly what you are trying to achieve and by when. When goals are specific we mean that they are measurable, meaning we’re able to measure the goal’s outcomes. When goals that are vague, such as lose some weight, they’re not motivating or easy to achieve. An example of a clear goal is “to lose 10 kilograms in the next six months“. A clear goal is measurable and time-bound

Measurable goals are powerful as they remove ambiguity and help you focus.

“A goal properly set is halfway reached.” — Zig Ziglar

Specific goals focus your attention. Without them you become distracted, your attention is divided. When goals are vague they create confusion. The lack of specificity makes it difficult to identify what steps you need to take to achieve your goal. The result is you lose focus, you waste time and energy. When goals are clear tasks and activities are easy to identify.

Specific goals result in higher performance. This is because measurable goals are more effective at guiding action.

“A good archer is known not by his arrows but by his aim.” — Thomas Fuller

Setting specific goals are an important first consideration for effective goal setting. Next time you are setting goals take time to write your goals down and for each goal include a measurable and time-bound description.

2. Set challenging goals

Whilst it is a good to have specific goals, it is just as important to set challenging goals. Research by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham found that people are motivated by challenging goals. In fact, the more difficult and specific a goal is, the harder people will work to achieve it. When goals are too easy or too difficult people will not put forward their best effort.

“Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to the highest performance.” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting

Research shows challenging goals inspire increased performance. Effort is directly related to the difficultly of a goal. The more difficult the goal, the more effort you’ll invest. As a result is challenging goals lead to higher performance.

Challenging and specific goals create a gap between current and aspirational performance and thereby they motivate greater effort and persistence. Not only do challenging goals motivate people to work harder. People believe that challenging goals are more rewarding.

”The highest level of effort occurred when the task was moderately difficult, and the lowest levels occurred when the task was either very easy or very hard.” – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey

Setting challenging goals requires a careful balance to ensure the right degree of challenge. Goals that are either too easy or too difficult negatively affect motivation and decrease performance. The highest levels of motivation is achieved when goals are somewhere between easy and difficult.

When you next set goals ensure they’re challenging yet realistic, difficult yet attainable. When setting goals ask yourself. 

  • Are they challenging enough? 
  • Are they big enough to be motivating? 
  • Are they realistic and attainable?

3. Build rational and emotional commitment

”The goal–performance relationship is strongest when people are committed to their goals.” – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey

Research shows that people perform better when they are committed to achieving a goal. It’s the emotional commitment to your goals that provides the motivation to perseverance through difficult time as required to achieve challenging goals. Failing to take time to build emotional commitment to your goals makes achieving them unlikely.

“Commitment is most important and relevant when goals are difficult.” – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey

To achieve challenging goals you have to believe in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You must believe that what you’re doing is important and that the outcomes matter. Commitment makes it more likely that you will persevere in the face of difficulties, obstacles and setbacks. Commitment builds the resilience necessary to achieve challenging goals.

“High commitment to goals is attained when (a) the individual is convinced that the goal is important; and (b) the individual is convinced that the goal is attainable (or that, at least, progress can be made toward it).” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting

When goals are specific and challenging you must focus on building the necessary emotional commitment to your goals. The more difficult the goal the more commitment is required. One day to build emotional commitment to your goals is by making your goals visual, using pictures or by creating a vision board. 

Lastly, ensure you devoted sufficient resources to support of your goals. The availability of resources to support your goal is essential to the development of emotional commitment.

4. Schedule regular reviews to stay on track

Once you have set your goals it’s important to track and monitor progress. Tracking the progress you’re making in achieving your goals builds motivation.

“Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal.” – Edwin Locke, Motivation through conscious goal setting

You don’t just set goals and wait to review them at the scheduled completion date. You must track your progress, gather feedback and make adjustments along the way. This process increased your motivation and build momentum as you see your goals being realised.

Tracking progress helps you sustain commitment. When working towards your goals make time for feedback and review. Schedule a dedicated time to review your goals and use this time to identify challenges and make adjustments to stay on track.

5. Manage task complexity by chunking

Setting specific and challenging goals can results in increased task complexity. Complex tasks that have to be completed to achieve your goals can be overwhelming. If they’re not carefully managed, complex tasks can cause you to lose motivation. It also erodes commitment. Given this you will need to take special care to manage complex tasks.

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

You can manage task complexity by breaking complex tasks into smaller chunks of work and sub-tasks. You can the create a plan to manage the completion of these smaller sub-tasks. Plans help prevent you from getting overwhelmed by task complexity. In addition he completion of the smaller sub-tasks keeps you motivated.

Locke and Latham recommended that learning goals should be used, rather than performance goals when dealing with complex tasks. Complex tasks require learning and as such it’s often better to set learning goals, rather than performance goals.

“When people strive for goals on complex tasks, they are least effective in discovering suitable task strategies if: (a) they have no prior experience or training on the task; (b) there is high pressure to perform well; and (c) there is high time pressure (to perform well immediately).” – Edwin Locke, “Motivation through conscious goal setting

In addition to developing a plan, you’ll need to manage complex tasks by identify where you have gaps in your knowledge and skills. Having identified your knowledge gaps consider setting learning goals to bridge the gap. Also make sure you give yourself sufficient time to improve your knowledge and skills. Recognise that achieving challenging goals is a learning process, complete with all the frustrations associated with learning a new skill.


Goal setting is just like any other skill. It takes practice to become good at setting and achieving goals. By applying these five research based principles will ensure you achieve your goals.

“Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I’ll give you a stock clerk.” – J.C. Penney

The next time you’re setting goals, make sure you include all five of the ingredients necessary for effective goal setting:

  1. Make sure your goals are clear, specific and measurable.
  2. Make sure you aim high and set goals that challenge you.
  3. Make sure that you’re emotionally committed to achieving your goals.
  4. Monitor your progress by developing a weekly and quarterly reviews to help you stay on track.
  5. Consider the complexity of the tasks and chunk them into smaller tasks when appropriate. Also ensure you make time for learning, development and growth.