It's hard to overstate the importance of well-defined goals. When we have vague ideas about self-improvement, we don't tend to get a lot of traction. Without a clear vision of where we want to go, it's hard to commit to the changes that are needed to get there.
When I think of goal setting, I think of an athlete like Michael Phelps. In 2008 he set out to win 8 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, and he did just that. I can't imagine he would have been as successful if he'd gone to China "just hoping to do my best." He had a clear, even burning, vision of what he wanted to accomplish.
Goals are important in any context, including in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In a person's initial session with me, I always ask about their goals. What do they want to change? How can our work help them move toward these changes? When we've agreed on what the goals are, we know if the work we're doing together is helping the person to reach them.
Consider for a moment if there are changes you've wanted to make in your own life. Maybe you have a personal project you've wanted to finish (like writing a book), or you want to live a healthier lifestyle, or you have professional aspirations that you've not yet reached.
You might find a time to sit quietly and contemplate the change you have in mind. Why is it important to you? How important is it? What has stopped you thus far from reaching it? And what will be required of you to reach your goal? This line of thinking will take honesty on your part—honesty about where you are and what you want to change.
Why do goals matter so much? Psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham have written a lot about goals (see this article for a review), and emphasize the strong links between goals and motivation. According to Locke and Latham (L&L), goals drive action in at least four ways:
- Goals sharpen our focus on what's important to us. There are countless distractions that compete for our energy and attention and can crowd out what we value most. A clear goal stands out from these competing stimuli, making them fade into the background. For example, if I set a goal to conquer my fear of driving, I'll probably pay less attention to the urge to avoid my fears.
- Goals energize our efforts. Without clear goals, we can feel unmotivated, unsure of where to direct our energy. When we know what we're aiming for, we work harder, especially if we feel a deep connection with our goals.
- Goals lead to greater persistence. When we've decided what we want, we'll be more likely to continue working toward that goal even when we face challenges.
- Goals compel us to find ways of meeting them. It's easy to let not knowing how to meet a goal prevent us from setting it. For example, I might avoid committing to a goal of consistent exercise because I don't know what form of exercise I want to do. Once I decide to exercise, I'll find "task-relevant knowledge and strategies" (as L&L say) to make it happen.
Goals turn dissatisfaction with our situation into an intention to improve it. And that's pretty empowering.
Speaking of empowerment, my favorite part of the L&L article I cited is where they tie it all together to show how well-chosen goals are part of "the High-Performance Cycle." Based on their model, the right goals generate excitement and a sense of self-efficacy—that is, an awareness that I am capable of reaching these goals.
Excitement and self-efficacy, in turn, lead to greater performance and greater satisfaction with our performance. As we see ourselves succeeding, our confidence goes up, as does our "willingness to commit to new challenges." Success breeds success. Over time this cycle builds on itself, leading to ever greater levels of achievement and satisfaction.
Our goals are most effective when they are:
- Specific. You should know when you've reached your goal. For example, "exercise more" is vague whereas "exercise 30 minutes 3x/week" is specific and measurable.
- Appropriately difficult. There's a sweet spot in picking the difficulty of our goals. Too easy and we'll be uninspired, like spinning in a bicycle gear that's too small; too challenging and we'll be disheartened, like barely turning over the crank up a massive hill. Aim for moderate effort that's sustainable.
- Important. If we don't care about our goals, we'll have little chance of meeting them. Make sure your goals are indeed yours, not what someone else wants for you. Also, consider why each goal is important; how will your life improve when you reach it?