Goal Setting – A Form of Self-Regulation

“Goals are mental representations of desired outcomes to which people are committed” (Mann, Ridder, & Fujita, 2013, p. 488). Setting a goal goes beyond valuing something. For example, a person may value good health; however, that individual may not be committed to eating vegetables and fruits or to exercise. A goal represents a desired end state. Self-regulation refers to the processes people use to attain their goals. Self-regulation begins when a person explicitly adopts a goal. A goal can be as small as drinking an extra glass of water per day, or as large as living a healthy lifestyle. There are many obstacles to goal-setting and attainment. For example, one could argue that most people desire good health; however, many do not understand fully the connections between their behaviors and their health, or perhaps they feel overwhelmed by the abundance of health information, much of which is often conflicting. Another barrier is competing goals. A person may wish to be healthy, but the demands of achieving health may compete with scarce resources like time, money, and the energy required to pursue the goal seriously. The chances of adopting a goal increase when achieving the goal is consistent and compatible with other goals. Certainly, the more intrinsic one’s motivation, the more likely the person will achieve his or her goal.

The characteristics of the goal itself matter. Translating a vague wish into a concrete goal is a necessary step. Mann, Ridder, & Gujit (2013) synthesized several studies of the characteristics of goals set effectively. They are as follows:

  • Motivational orientation – Goals are designed either to approach the achievement of a certain outcome or to avoid an unwanted outcome. Approaching an end state is easier and more clear-cut than avoiding something unwanted. For example, stating a goal of “avoiding being sedentary” lacks clarity and specificity. However, walking 30 minutes each day is phrased positively. It is both concrete and measurable.
  • Level of difficulty – An unanswered questions concerns the ideal discrepancy between a current and desired state. The acronym SMART is commonly used to convey characteristics of well-formulated goals (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). Current research is mixed. Some studies suggests that people may feel inspired to pursue unrealistic goals rather than give up on them. Other studies suggest that people may adjust their evaluations of their goals to reduce the discrepancy between the desirability of the goal and how realistic it is to achieve. One way to reduce that discrepancy is to work hard to make the goal more attainable. Awareness of both the feasibility of a goal and its level of desirability can increase a person’s self-efficacy.
  • Performance versus Mastery Goals – Whether a goal entails achieving a standard (performance goal) or developing a skill (mastery goal) matters. Setbacks are less likely to affect individuals developing skills than those focusing solely on achieving a standard. For example, a person who focuses on losing 25 pounds is more vulnerable to setbacks than is the person who learns how to lose those 25 pounds. Mastery goals avoid the “all or nothing” approach, which can be self-defeating.
  • Abandoning Goals – When people abandon goals, they may have adopted goals for the wrong reasons, or encountered conflicts with other goals or other current needs. They may have insufficient goal-striving skills. Abandoning a goal is considered a self-regulation concern. Sometimes giving up on a goal is the prudent thing to do. There is a difference between a setback and a goal that is affecting a person negatively. Frustration and anger may indicate one needs to work harder; however, sadness and depression may signal that it is time to abandon a goal.

Goal striving is the process of planning and performing the necessary behaviors to achieve a goal. Knowing what one needs to do and when to act is critical. There are many ways to achieve a goal, of course, as well as many opportunities to act. People routinely confront distractions, frustrations, and temptations to quit as they strive. Protecting one’s goals from disruption is an important component of striving. One needs self-regulation strategies for protection. Rehearsing goal-directed behaviors in advance of performing them is one strategy. Mental rehearsals equip people to fend off disruptions when they encounter them in practice. Increasing the cost of goal abandonment is another strategy. For example, a person losing weight may donate old clothes that no longer fit. If that person were to regain weight, he or she would need to spend money to purchase new clothes at that larger size.

Strategies

Mann, Ridder, & Gujit (2013) researched effective strategies for achieving goals. The first, prospection and planning entails anticipating event that are pertinent to achieving goals and rehearsing in one’s mind the behaviors necessary to achieve those goals. Automating behavior, another strategy, encompasses the use of behaviors that become habitual with repeated use, and do not require conscious effort to implement. For example, the successful dieter recruits positive thoughts that help resist temptation to eat ice cream automatically. The third strategy, construal, refers to a person’s orientation toward the goal-directed behavior changing over time. It is called construal because the constructs differ between present and future attitudes toward a goal. For example, one may have think positively about the future health benefits of exercise; however, at the end of a long work day, the attitude may be negative because the person feels tired and hungry, and lacks the motivation to be active at that time. The idea is to make the current and distant construction of the goal consistent and positive. Effortful inhibition is a strategy people use, which entails consciously fighting off behaviors that distract the person from achieving a goal. Research suggests this strategy is not very effective.

Goal setting is an important theme in my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training. The leaders in my study are avid exercisers. One participant, Juliet, lost 200 pounds through her exercise and diet regimen. She reported that no matter how tired, exhausted and stressed she is at the end of the day, she needs to go to the gym to survive. Otherwise, she would not be able to cope with the pressure of developing drugs and vaccines to “save mankind.” This is classic goal-striving and effortful inhibition behavior because she protects her fitness goals to prevent distraction. All five leaders in my study go through the prospection and planning. Although the Workout of the Day (WOD) may be new, they understand enough about the individual moves, sequencing, and configuration of the intervals to strategize how to tackle the regimen successfully. All leaders use measurement as a motivational tool – both for themselves and their employees (team members). Their aim for to improve continuously, striving always to hit that personal record (PR). They track and record their progress. Goal-setting strategies are useful in every aspect of life. There is much to learn from the successful leaders in my study, who apply goal-setting theories to all aspects of their lives.

Reference

Mann, T., de Ridder, D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Self-regulation of health behavior: Social psychological approaches to goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32(5), 487-498. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0028533

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

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