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A Fresh Approach To Goal Setting

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At the beginning of the year, our minds often turn to New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are fun, but unfortunately they rarely translate into reality. Could the right kind of goal setting be the key?

  • 25 percent of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions after one week. 60 percent of people abandon them within six months.
  • The average person makes the same New Year’s resolution ten separate times without success.
  • Only 14 percent of post-heart attack patients make any lasting changes to their eating or exercise habits (1).

Aspirations are not enough. We need goals and, in reality, we need a particular kind of goal. Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, recently did a study on goal-setting with 267 participants (2).

In the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of a number of groups: Group 1 set unwritten goals. Participants in this group were simply asked to think about their goals; in this case what they wanted to accomplish over the next 4 weeks. Participants in group 2 wrote their goals down in the form of an online survey. All the participants pursued a variety of goals which included completing a project, such as selling a house, completing a strategic plan, securing a contract, hiring employees, increasing income. Others aimed to increase productivity, get organised, enhance performance, improve life balance, reduce work anxiety or learn a new skill.

The subjects who wrote down their goals achieved significantly more than group 1, who simply thought about them. The evidence was conclusive, the professor found that we are 42 percent more likely to achieve our goals simply by writing them down.

How To Write Goals: Implementation Intention

There is also some interesting evidence to suggest how we can write goals in such a way that it significantly improves our chances of success. This technique is called ‘implementation intention’.

Multiple studies have found that this simple approach can significantly increase our chances of translating our intentions into reality (3). In practise, it’s important to be as specific and detailed as possible in the goal setting process, using the following four steps as a guide:

1) Decide what you want to do.  Choose a manageable behaviour.  It could relate to weight loss, learning a new skill at work, or an exercise goal. It could be almost anything, as long as it’s simple and relatively attainable.

2) Decide when you want to do it.  Select a time or set of circumstances to trigger your action. You could choose a time of day on a specific day of the week. Alternatively, you may select the same time on every day of the week, depending on the nature of the goal. For example, if your overall aim was to improve strength and condition, one sub-goal could be to do 5 press-ups and 5 pull-ups every time you got up to make a drink. Alternatively, if you goal is to be more intentional about integrating relaxation in your day, you could decide to spend two minutes breathing deeply at 11:00am each day. It’s also worth considering different circumstances, too.

3) Put the ‘what’ and ‘when’ elements together into an “If… then…” statement.  For example, you could say ”If I get up from my desk to make a drink, then, when I return to my desk, I will spend two minutes breathing deeply”.

4) Write this If… then…. statement down on paper or a computer.


The SMART guide to goal setting has also proved helpful to many people. This approach suggests that goals should be:

Specific: What do you want to achieve in your area of focus?

Meaningful: How does this area of focus relate to your core motivation: your identity, purpose and control?

Action Orientated: What steps will you take to achieve your goal?

Realistic: Can you conceivably achieve this goal? Do you believe you can?

Timely: Set a date for achieving the goal.

Encourage A Flexible, Growth Mindset

There is something else we can do that recognises our humanity and can help us to achieve our goals, in addition to writing them down. We’re all aware that no-one is perfect, so we should encourage a flexible ‘growth mind-set’ in ourselves and others. The growth mindset is the idea that that your strengths and abilities are not fixed, but can improve over time and with effort, and can have self-fulfilling results (4).

In this context, research also suggests that we can and should be flexible in goals setting. For example, setting goals in the form of ranges, rather than single numbers. Studies have demonstrated that people are much more likely to continue with a programme and achieve goals if they have a high-low range goal – lose 1-3kg this month, for example – as opposed to a single number goal, such as “lose 3kg this month”.

A recent study (5) suggests that:

“People who set high-low range goals may be more likely to sustain the longevity of their achievements”. 

Encourage commitment and accountability

Interestingly in Dr. Matthews’ study, mentioned earlier, evidence was presented which supports the effectiveness of accountability and commitment in goal setting.

In addition to the first two groups, those who had unwritten goals verses written goals, there were also three more groups.

Group 3 was asked to formulate action commitments, in addition to writing their goals down. Group 4 was asked to formulate action commitments and send these, along with their goals, to a supportive friend. Group 5 was asked to formulate action commitments, goals, send these to a friend, along with a weekly progress report, as well. Participants in this group were also sent weekly reminders to email the progress reports.

What were the results?

Group 5, the group who formulated action commitments, were sent weekly reminders and sent their own progress reports, achieved significantly more than all the other groups.

Putting It Into Practise

The studies presented in this feature illustrate some practical ways we can be more successful in our goal setting processes and increase the probability that we can turn our best intentions into action. In practise, this could involve three simple steps:

Be specific: write your goals down and use the ‘implementation intention’ technique.

Set goals which are measurable, but also be open to them being flexible and established as ranges.

Share your goals with someone you trust and ask them to remind you to send a weekly progress report.


1) RIEKERT, K. A. et al. (2013) The Handbook of Health Behavior Change, 4th Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company. p. 279.

2) DOMINICAN UNIVERSITY. (2015) Goals Research Summary. [Online] Available from: https://www.dominican.edu/academics/ahss/undergraduate-programs/psych/faculty/assets-gail-matthews/researchsummary2.pdf [Accessed: 3rd January 2015].

3) HAGGER, M.S. & LUSZCYNSKA, A. (2014) Implementation Intention and Action Planning Interventions in Health Contexts: State of the Research and Proposals for the Way Forward. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 6 (1) p. 1–47

4) DWECK, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. UK: Hachette.

5) SCOTT, M. L. & NOWLIS, S. M. (2013) The Effect of Goal Specificity on Consumer Goal Reengagement. Journal of Consumer Research. 40 (3) p. 444-459