Getting Good at Goal-Setting

The Latest Research + a Helpful Checklist

Goal-setting has always been an important part of building confidence. 

Way back in 1892, the father of American psychology, William James, included in his first textbook a formula for self-esteem based on success and goal-setting. His theory was that the way we think about ourselves is an outcome of our successes compared to our goals and values, or what he called our pretensions.

This view underscored the importance of setting goals and aspirations in line with our values and skills, his point being that unrealistic goals can undermine self-esteem.

Beyond their effect on the way we see ourselves, goals are also related to how we believe in ourselves. Fast forward 100 years from William James to Bandura’s self-efficacy theory (1982) which notes that when we have a stronger belief in our capabilities, we’re more likely to set challenging goals and to persevere in pursuit of those goals. So our confidence can be affected by whether we reach our goals, and it can influence the types of goals we set.

Contemporary research has also identified the specific benefits of setting and achieving realistic and meaningful goals. For example, people who believe they can energetically pursue their goals, and find ways to overcome obstacles on the way to reaching their goals, do well in academic and interpersonal contexts. They even have higher levels of physical and mental health (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2002).

I say meaningful goals because the pursuit of materialistic or extrinsic goals is linked to lower levels of well-being in adolescents (Massey et al., 2008). Additional research into academic achievement has also found evidence that children setting their own goals leads to higher self-efficacy and academic outcomes, compared to being assigned goals or having no goals.

What types of goals are best?

Ones that focus on mastery and process are preferable. These types of goals are intrinsically motivating and involve the actions you need to take to be successful, like practicing something every day or learning everything you can about a subject you’re passionate about.

Mastery goals are positively correlated with flow, engagement, and persistence. Importantly, you have complete control over process goals like whether or not you practice or study. Whereas outcome or performance goals, like winning a race or getting a certain grade, are beyond what we can always control and may set us up for disappointment no matter how hard we work. A mastery focus means achieving standards you’ve set for yourself, whereas performance goals are based on normative or comparative standards.

So, the types of goals we set matter, but the way in which we pursue them (and the resources we believe we have to help us get there) also have an impact. Research from experiential education has found that:

  • The most successful participants increase the number of goals they set as they participate

  • Goal-setting can increase program efficacy

  • When multiple parties (parents, coaches) commit to one’s goal, it can further increase positive outcomes, and help outcomes last longer

As we think about how to guide kids through creating their own goals, one framework that can help is called Selection, Optimization and Compensation, or SOC. Help kids to choose goals that are attainable and interesting, and discuss options for goals that align with their values and passions. Then, help them acquire the skills and resources they need to achieve their goals. This includes helping them to practice, gather knowledge, or schedule their time. Lastly, when kids encounter obstacles, help them to find strategies to overcome those challenges, or even how to adjust their goals to be more realistic or simplified if they’re no longer a good fit.

Helping kids to set and achieve their goals is an important part of building confidence, so as the new year approaches, here’s a goal-setting checklist (informed by research) to help you to get the most out of setting goals for yourself and the kids in your life:

Goal-setting check-list:

  • Specific (goal is detailed and success is measurable, e.g., X event by Y date)

  • Realistic (goal is within the realm of possibility to achieve)

  • Challenging (goal demands use of skills and energy)

  • Process-oriented (goal focuses on actions, not outcomes)

  • Meaningful (goal is in pursuit of something you are passionate about)

  • Aligns with your values (goal does not compromise what you believe in)

  • Bonus: Serves others (goal is mutually beneficial to self and others)

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