Goal-Setting Secrets

It’s the end of January already! “Where has the time gone?” my elderly neighbour Stella asked this morning as we chatted about the weather, our families, and which birds we had  spotted in our gardens (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is doing a nationwide Bird Watch this weekend).

Bird Watching

Stella is a real inspiration – she‘s in her late 70s, happily divorced with three grown-up children, and as well as being an avid birdwatcher, she paints and leads a regular poetry class at the local University of the Third Age.

We talked about New Year’s Resolutions. Does she set New Year’s Resolutions? Or have goals? No (in fact she snorted with laughter at this point). But she’s always thinking up something new to try, whether it’s writing Haiku, foraging for wild foods, or learning how to make soap. I started to wonder how goal-setting changes as you get older and whether there is a type of person for whom deliberate or conscious goal-setting isn’t required.

In our Positive Psychology Masterclass last week my colleague Miriam Akhtar and I devoted part of the two-day session to the application of positive psychology in coaching. The topic of goals – goal setting and goal achievement – is central to coaching, so the research related to goals and well-being played a major role in our discussion. Whether you are coaching yourself or someone else, it’s helpful to understand the different impacts of different types of goals.

Approach and Avoidance Goals

Approach goals are those with positive outcomes that we work towards.  Positive can mean different things in different contexts, such as liked, desirable, pleasurable, or beneficial.

Avoidance goals are those with negative outcomes that we work to avoid. Negative can mean different things, including disliked, undesirable, painful, or harmful.

Approach Goal Avoidance Goal
to be more efficient to stop procrastinating
to be friendly and outgoing at parties to stop being so shy at parties
to take on a leadership role at work to not be over-looked at work
Goal Poster

Goal Poster

Research suggests that pursuing avoidance goals is detrimental to well-being. In one study, participants with a greater proportion of avoidance goals reported lower subjective well-being over the course of the semester and had lower well-being at the end of the semester than they had at the start. In another study therapy clients with more avoidance goals experienced smaller increases in subjective well-being than those with fewer.

One reason for this could be that constantly looking for evidence of the absence of something negative or monitoring negative possibilities drains your energy and enjoyment.  These findings suggest that creating approach goals, or positively reframing avoidance goals, is beneficial for well-being. For some people, however, it may not be that simple, for example where those with an avoidance temperament or a fear of failure. In this situation, researchers advise therapists to query their clients about why they think they are pursuing avoidance goals in the first place, and then to use the information gleaned to decide which direction to take in therapy. Coaches might also follow the same guidance with their clients.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Goals

Goals tend to fall into two categories – intrinsic goals (such as personal growth, physical fitness and contributing to the community that we want for their own sakes) and extrinsic goals (such as money, fame, status and physical attractiveness that we want because of their effect on others).  People often have a mix of both types of goals, and vary in terms of how much importance they place on them. Scientific studies indicate that vigorously pursuing extrinsic goals is linked to lower well-being, whereas intrinsic goals are associated with enhanced well-being. Although this seems like another simple recipe for improving well-being by reframing extrinsic goals as intrinsic ones, it isn’t quite so straightforward, it also depends on motivation.

One Step Further: Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

It’s not just a question of whether your goals are extrinsic or intrinsic, you also have to consider whether you’re extrinsically or intrinsically motivated, in other words, whether you want to do something or whether you feel you have to (because you’re being persuaded, manipulated, pressured, or threatened).

Made it to the top!

Made it to the top!

Being intrinsically motivated (doing something because you want to, for the sake of it) rather than being extrinsically motivated, enhances your well-being, your engagement with the activity, and your chances of being successful.

So how can we increase our intrinsic motivation for working towards a goal? Self-determination theory suggests that finding ways to increase autonomy (feeling in control), relatedness (feeling connected to others), and competence (feeling able to have an impact on the environment), will all increase intrinsic motivation and lead to greater well-being.

Say we want to increase a child’s intrinsic motivation towards doing homework. Offering money or threatening with loss of playtime may work in the short term, but will not build intrinsic motivation that drives them in the longer term. Instead we could try to increase their sense of autonomy by giving them some choices about how and when they do the homework and increase their sense of competence by providing positive feedback and helping them break down the task into manageable chunks such that they can quickly see progress. Scott Asalone has a good example of this in his article, Moving from “I Must” to “I Want To…”.

It’s also worth knowing that you can be intrinsically motivated to pursue extrinsic goals (and vice versa). If this is the case, having materialistic aspirations doesn’t necessarily decrease well-being if they help the person achieve basic financial security or other intrinsic goals. In fact it has been suggested that in some circumstances pursuing extrinsic goals may even contribute to well-being. So, before reframing extrinsic goals, explore the underlying motivation a little more deeply.

This article first apeared on Positive Psychology News on 31st January 2012


Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586-598.

Brdar, I., Rijavec, M. & Miljkovic, D. (2009). Life goals and well-being: Are extrinsic aspirations always detrimental to well-being? Psychological Topics, 18(2), 317-334.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Elliott, A. & Church, M. (2002). Client-articulated avoidance goals in the therapy context. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 49(2), 243-254.

Elliot, A., Sheldon, K., & Church, M. (1997). Avoidance personal goals and subjective well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 915-927.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001).  Be careful what you wish for:  Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals.  In P. Schmuck & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life Goals and Well-Being: Towards a Positive Psychology of Human Striving (pp. 116-131). Gottingen: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.


Birdwatching courtesy of Rennett Stowe

Goal poster by EvelynGiggles

Made it to the top by magical-world

One Response

  1. Goal Commitment · Positive Psychology at Work Says:

    […] Yesterday I wrote about secrets of goal setting. Today I’m following up with a few factors that affect maintaining goal commitment. […]

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