Goals – how to set and stick to them

A key driver of motivation is through effective goal setting. But how do we set goals which will motivate us and how do we make sure we follow through on them? One way to do this is to think about why we want to achieve something ahead of time, making sure we use SMART goals1 and employ techniques such as bookending. Read on to find out more.

Value driven goals

It is important that you think about why you want to do something before you set any specific goals. As we have already seen, things which motivate us intrinsically are much more likely to keep us engaged in the long term. Goals which align with our core values, achieve intrinsically important aims, and don’t clash with other important aspects of our lives are much more likely to be motivating than those which do not fulfil these criteria. From this point of view, it becomes apparent that the goals we set are not somehow psychologically isolated from the rest of our lives. Rather, they should be reflection of who we are and other things we doing. Taking this wider perspective on what goals mean helps ensure that they motivate us in a sustainable way. Such an approach also make us more resilient to obstacles and setbacks.

SMART goals

How we formulate our goals is important also. The idea of SMART goals has been around since the 1980s. Goals which are SMART have specific criteria for success, have measurable outcomes, are assigned to a particular individual or organisation, are realistic and have a set timeframe in which you plan to achieve them. Ideally, you should make sure that these things don’t happen by accident!

When planning your goals, consider the extent to which you specify exactly what you are intending to do – training to run local 10k race in February is much more specific than saying you plan to ‘run a bit’. Sometimes, the goals we set can slightly nebulous. However, it is better to be precise. For instance, if I want to try reduce the amount of junk food I consume, I can define that pretty well. For instance, I could set a goal stating that I will eat that particular type of food only a set number of times a week.

Assignment is about the who. It’s important to know who is is actually going to do the activity that will help you reach your goal. This is a bigger problem in organisations-for your own personal motivation you can usually assume the person doing activity is yourself!

Setting realistic goals is really important! If we set unattainable goals, we have a tendency to engage in substitution (i.e. we give up on the initial aim and shift our definition of success to something which is more easily achievable2 ). Even worse, if it feels like goals are achievable and we can’t engage in substitution we are also pretty likely just to give up! One technique to help set realistic goals is to break down large complicated projects into smaller subgoals. It’s much easier to set and achieve a SMART subgoal (or, more likely, a series of subgoals) than one giant aim which is, in effect, to achieve ‘everything’ in the project. Lots of research suggests sub-goals are linked to better performance, as long as we don’t ‘rest on our laurels’ when we achieve them 3,4.

Finally, it is important you are really clear when you going achieve a goal by. This stops it becoming an activity which is delayed or put aside when new things come up. This acts as a form of deadline which (as we have discussed elsewhere) can be either a motivating but also demotivating factor so it careful how we manage this process.

‘Bookending’ goals

As well as making your goals SMART, you should also consider making them public. The concept of bookending your goals involves talking to someone you trust and respect about what you intend to do. As your goals are smart, you know when you intend to achieve them. This means you can arrange to meet with the person who you are bookending at a set date. At this second meeting, you feedback at on what you have been up to and how it has gone. It’s important when doing this that there is an expectation (amongst both parties) that the goals will be met.

How does bookending work? From a psychological point of view, bookending is motivating because it taps into a drive to avoid cognitive dissonance (in this case, a discrepancy between how you think and say you will behave and how you do). It also gives you someone to talk to to ensure that the goals are indeed SMART. You partner can also offer a fresh perspective about how you will pursue you aims. Often people mutually bookend goals. Each person sets a goal and then agree to come together at set periods to report back. If you have a mentor, they are a natural person to undertake this process with.

How can I use this information?

  1. Make sure that the goals you set yourself are compatible with the values you have, and reflect internal drivers and needs wherever possible.
  2. Set SMART goals to make sure you know exactly what your doing and how you will measure it. Ensure you are aiming for something realistic and have a clear deadline.
  3. Consider using bookending to make yourself publicly accountable – choose someone you not only hold in respect, but also trust to hold you accountable!


  1. Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’s goals and objectives. Management Review,70, 35-36. 
  2. Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2017). Irrevocable goals. Review of General Psychology, 21, 69-81. 
  3. Locke, E. A., & Bryan, J. F. (1967). Performance goals as determinants of level of performance and boredom. Journal of Applied Psychology, 51, 120-130. 
  4. Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). Resting on laurels: The effects of discrete progress markers as subgoals on task performance and preferences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34, 1158-1171. 

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