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Goal Setting

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Edwin Locke’s 1960 Goal Setting Theory stirred the business community around the essentials of performance management and what motivates people to get things done. Since this ground-breaking work, goal setting has become a fundamental steppingstone in our culture on how to accomplish the mundane to large tasks. 

Locke partnered with Dr. Gary Latham and published further research in 1990 under the title “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance” where he reinforced his original findings that people are more motivated to complete a task and reach goals when they are challenging and appropriate feedback is provided along the way. 

In all of Locke’s research, and subsequent studies by other psychologists, goal setting has been established as the first step in organizing time effectively. For goals to be the foundation on which all other techniques are built, five principles must be followed.

Let’s take a deeper dive into these.

Five Goal Principles

    1. Clarity

Clear goals are measurable and leaves no room for interpretation or misunderstanding. They should include: 

  • Behaviors that need to occur
  • Quantifiable result
  • Rewards provided
  • Time constraint
  • Answers the question, “What will X (life, work, health, bank account, family room) look like after the goal is reached.

    2. Challenge

When all parties perceive a goal as challenging, yet still achievable, people are more apt to be successful. This means you’ve got to first know your current situation before you can define your future goal. Make sure to capture facts, data, and face truths before you set your challenge. 

Also, the reward needs to appropriately match the accomplishment. For example, if your goal is to organize your desk and the reward for yourself is a 5-minute break, that might not be motivating enough. However, if your reward is to leave work as soon as you’ve organized your desk and take the rest of the day off, that just might get you moving quickly and efficiently.

   3. Commitment

This is where many goals fail. There needs to be commitment from everyone involved, not just compliance. The difference is compliance contains two parts: 1) the reason each person sees for the goal, 2) an intrinsic purpose they feel about the goal. When leadership or authority figures assign goals without input from the persons responsible for executing and achieving the goal, it falls flat and fails. Commitment is created when everyone has a voice and the goal written represents that.

Another important element of creating commitment is to ensure goals advance the person or group in a continued direction. Imagine you work for a company that has a clear vision and mission statement around balanced living. Yet during a team meeting the CEO announces the new production goal and it’s doubled! How does the goal of doubling production support and advance the previous vision and mission shared with employees? This is often where employees lose trust in organizations and lack commitment to achieving goals. 

When it comes to commitment and goals, the more challenging the goal the more commitment required in achieving it. There are obstacles to overcome, disappointments to move past, and roadblocks that need to be broken through, all in the purpose of meeting a goal. The more difficult the tasks the more people need to hold onto those intrinsic connections to be successful.

   4. Feedback

In addition to a high level of commitment, an effective goal setting process includes feedback. Feedback offers opportunity to clarify expectations, course correct, adjust benchmarks, or even alter a too ambitious goal. Feedback provided in a consistent fashion and in regular intervals gives the highest chances of achieving the goal, especially if it is more demanding or long in duration.

    5. Task Complexity

The last principle addresses two additional requirements for successful goal setting. The first is to make sure that regardless of how advanced someone is in their role, how educated, or apparently motivated, anyone can become discouraged if a task is too complex. Ensuring plenty of resources, consultations, and revisions increases confidence around task completion.

The second requirement is to provide enough time for a person to tap into those resources, listen to consultations, make revisions, practice, and make revisions again. Without reasonable timelines, complex goals are unsupported and discouragement turns into surrender. 

If goal setting is the foundation of having time organized, then why are so many people hesitant to set goals. WHY??

Because when we declare a goal, really own it, the possibility of not achieving it is then too great and our stress response actually views that as a threat. The fear of failure and commitment rise up and place doubt in our minds. Having goals as pass/fail is the biggest misstep in goal setting and you’re setting yourself, and others, up for failure before you even begin. 

Instead, AIM-SMART

The acronym SMART in goal setting is commonplace where goals are:

  • S- Specific
  • M- Measurable
  • A- Agreeable
  • R- Relevant
  • T- Timebound

What is far less known is we all should AIM-SMART.

  • A- “Acceptable minimum” you are willing to acknowledge as a winning goal
  • I- “Ideal” outcome you are looking for
  • M- “Maximum” results you could get if everything went perfectly


Create department policies. 

A (acceptable minimum)- Write one policy a week for 12 weeks.

I (ideal)- Write two policies a week for 6 weeks. 

M (maximum)- Write three policies a week for 4 weeks. 

Lose 10 pounds.

A (acceptable minimum)- In 10 weeks at 1 pound each week. 

I (ideal)- In 6 weeks at 1.5 pounds each week. 

M (maximum)- In 5 weeks at 2 pounds each week. 

Organize your office.

A (acceptable minimum)- Clean out one drawer. 

I (ideal)- Clean out all drawers and file all loose papers. 

M (maximum)- Clean out all drawers, file all loose papers, and put up shelves.  

Any forward movement towards a goal is positive movement and we should take pride in measuring and celebrating that movement. AIM will help you do just that for yourself or your team.

To-do lists are the next step in organizing your time. 

Key Takeaways

Edwin Locke’s 1960 Goal Setting Theory stirred the business community around the essentials of performance management and what motivates people to get things done. Since this ground-breaking work, goal setting has become a fundamental steppingstone in our culture on how to accomplish the mundane to large tasks. His 5-Goal Principles are; Clarity, Challenge, Commitment, Feedback, & Task Complexity.

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