The psychology behind goal setting & behavior change
The beginning of a new year is a common and motivating time to want to set new goals. One way people achieve their goals is through systematic goal setting. Sometimes, however, we may have trouble achieving the goals that we set. Here are some reasons why reaching our goals may be easier said than done, explanations for how goal setting works, and what you can do about it.
January 2, 2024 | Arianna Martignetti, Ed.D
The beginning of a new year is a common and motivating time to want to set new goals. One way people achieve their goals is through systematic goal setting. Sometimes, however, we may have trouble achieving the goals that we set. Outlined below are some reasons why reaching our goals may be easier said than done, explanations for how goal setting works, and what you can do about it.
Changing a behavior is difficult and complex, especially if it is a behavior that we have been exhibiting for a very long time, or learning a brand new one! The transtheoretical model of change (TTM), originally theorized and researched amongst smokers, breaks down stages to better understand the process of changing a behavior.(1) Five of them are briefly outlined below:
Precontemplation: In this stage, people do not intend make a change within the next six months, and may not consider or be aware that their behavior is problematic or unhealthy.
Contemplation: People intend to begin changing their behavior within the next six months, and start to consider the pros and cons of changing such a behavior.
Preparation: People are ready to take a step towards changing their behavior within 30 days and believe that a change can influence a healthier life.
Action: People have changed their behavior within the past 6 months. They intend to keep working on it by altering their problematic behavior and/or adopting new/healthier behaviors.
Maintenance: People have maintained their changed or new behaviors for more than six months, and intend to continue doing so.
It is important to note that there are limitations to the TTM, two of which include socioeconomic status and social contexts. Depending on which stage someone is in, there are interventions known as processes of change that can be implemented to help with changing/maintaining behaviors by altering our thinking and feelings.(1) Two examples are consciousness raising and reinforcements. Consciousness raising refers to information (either directly or indirectly) that raises our awareness of a problematic behavior and/or a healthy behavior. Social media and commercials do this a lot! An advertisement might share statistics of an unhealthy behavior or share images and anecdotes to promote healthy a behavior. Reinforcements are used to reward the desired behavior with hopes in reducing the unwanted behavior. For example, if you hit your exercise goal for the week, you might reinforce your behavior by purchasing a new workout shirt.
Consider the goal(s) that you are thinking about for the new year and which stage you think you are in. As for systematic goal setting, researchers suggest that setting goals can direct your focus, thus affecting your effort, influence and prolong your persistence, and help you develop new or improved strategies.(2) Factors that affect our goal setting process include the level of goal difficulty, how specific you are, and the use of both short-term and long-term goals.(3) Goals that are moderately-difficult-to-difficult are recommended compared to goals that are either too easily achieved or unrealistic and unattainable. Furthermore, if a goal that you set is too vague, it can be difficult to evaluate whether you are making progress.
When considering the relationship between goal setting and your performance, evaluation is a crucial factor. It is common to experience anxiety related to evaluating your progress; however, evaluation is necessary as it will allow you to adjust, re-consider, or set new goals for yourself. As for short-term goals, setting ones that are relevant to your long-term goal can help maintain persistence, and influence your motivation and confidence; this is especially true when you achieve those short-term goals! Some other forces that contribute to the relationship include the knowledge or resources that you have access to, your ability, and your commitment level. When assessing your level of commitment, reflect on the source of your goal. Are you setting it for yourself, or is it being influenced by somebody/something else? This can affect our motivation, and whether we feel more in control of our goal versus it being controlled by someone/something else.
Consider the above information in reference to directing your focus, acknowledging how it affects your effort and persistence, and the influence of new strategies along the way. It is important to note that goal setting is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. For more information on systematic goal setting, feel free to check out our previous post on how to set a New Year's Resolution.
1. Prochaska, J. O., & Norcross, J. C. (2001). Stages of change. Psychotherapy, 38(1), 443-448.
2. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5(2), 93-105.
3. Jeong, Y. K., Healy, L. C., & McEwan, D. (2021). The application of goal setting theory to goal setting interventions in sport: A systematic review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16(1).
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Arianna Martignetti, Ed.D., is a mental performance consultant who works with individual athletes, weekend warriors and teams at all levels, including competitive youth, high school, and collegiate levels, as well as recreational athletes.