The Mechanisms of Goal Setting.

It’s officially January! Congratulations!

Many people take this week to think about where they want their life to go in the upcoming year. They briefly reflect on what changes they want to make and how they are going to achieve it. New Year’s is the busiest time of year for me as a wellness consultant. I help clients achieve their goals buy guiding them towards practical changes.

Creating goals that will work for you can be a little more complex than just creating a plan and sticking to it. Last month, I started looking under the hood when it comes to what makes a goal that succeeds.

In this week’s article I dissect what a goal actually does. I describe the four mechanisms goals operate and how we can use this knowledge to improve our performance.

The 4 Mechanisms of Goal Setting.

Empirical Research into the field of goal setting  has had Two major players, Edwin A. Locke (University of Maryland) and Gary P. Latham (University of Toronto). In their 40 years of research, they studied the classic theories of Goal Setting and then tested these theories in modern day situations.

Classically, human motivation was seen to come from external factors called ‘motivators’ or ‘punishers’. It was seen that humans would only be motivated by the end results of a task but the mechanisms that could create these actions were left largely un-researched.

Fortunately, it was seen that tasks themselves may not be the only driving force in our motivations. Four Mechanisms have been discovered that drive human performance through the lens of goal setting. 

Goal Setting gives direction.

Goal Setting gives direction.

Mechanism # 1: Goals serve a directive function.

It seems obvious but goals give us a direction to focus. Think of them like a GPS providing you a route to a specific destination. Without the planned route you could go in almost any direction and will probably end up at your destination but this may take longer than desired.

An example would be a person who wants to become better at playing soccer. A soccer player needs a multitude of skills to be proficient. For a novice player to become better at the game they may need more than just general practice. Without a goal or direction in their training, they may feel stagnant in their improvement.

Keeping it general seems kind of daunting doesn’t it? No direction and we may feel like we are getting nowhere.

In a study, Rothkopf and Billington (1979) discovered that students focused on passages that were relevant to a goal better than learning passages that had no performance goal attached to them. Similarly, Locke and Bryan (1969) discovered that students who were given feed back on multiple aspects of their driving in an automobile test only improved on dimensions that had a specific goal.

Goals give us the direction to improve a task. If we don’t focus towards a single outcome, improvement may be prolonged or weakened.

Goals Give you Energy

Goals Give you Energy

Mechanism #2: Goals have an energizing function

Motivation is a funny thing. Humans have a hard time doing anything if it is to easy or too hard. We are kind of the Goldilocks of task completion. You have probably seen that when a task is too easy you put it off because you have no motivation to complete it. And inversely, tasks that are too difficult will keep a person from attempting at all.

Funnily enough, research has shown that difficult goals create higher performance compared with simpler goals This has been observed when comparing physical tasks (Bandura & Cervone, 1983), simple cognitive tasks such as addition (Bryan and Locke, 1976), and can be verified by measuring cognitive effort and physiological indicators (Sales 1970).   

When you think about it, it makes sense though. A goal doesn’t really need to exist if the task is perceived as simple. In turn, goals can be seen as an active ingredient in the process of change. If you can already achieve the task, you probably don’t need a goal for it.

In my opinion, difficult goals motivate us if we see why we may want to achieve it in the first place.  The end point of the goal will need to be seen as worthwhile or we would not want to work to achieve it in the first place.

Goals Keep you working.

Goals Keep you working.

Mechanism # 3: Goals effect persistence

One of the tough parts of completing a difficult task is sticking to it long enough to see it through. Sometimes we commit to a task that is perceived as difficult and become discouraged quite quickly.

When participants were given a time frame to complete a task, creating a hard goal in reference to this task prolonged effort (LaPorte & Nath, 1976). But there was some variance to how long a person could persist with a difficult goal depending on how intensely they worked at it. The time frame in which the task needed to be completed would dictate the intensity of the work pace (Latham & Locke, 1975).

As you build your goals, your capacity for work will need to be taken into consideration. You can’t expect to go from no exercise training to a 500 lb barbell squat in 3 months. Capacity for work will always be the middle part of the equation to create an effective plan. Finding that sweet spot between difficulty and attainability is always the tough part of creating an effective goal.

Goals help you discover what you can be next.

Goals help you discover what you can be next.

Mechanism #4: Goals assist in the discovery in task relevant knowledge and strategies

Here’s where things get interesting. Goals don’t only hone in our focus to complete a task. They open our minds to what skills are needed to achieve it. And when we create plans around our goals, we can use our progress as a way to build more skills.

When taking on a task with a goal, people automatically use skills and knowledge they currently have to complete it (Latham & Kinne, 1974). And when the task is new, a person will begin to deliberately learn new skills and strategies to attain the goal (Smith, Locke, & Barry, 1990).

This is the best part of goal setting. It’s not only the completing the task that makes you feel great. It’s the change towards being a different person than you were when you started. With new skills and possibilities to help you build towards whatever goal you want to set next! 

These 4 mechanisms show the power that goal setting can have on our performance. But we have been taught to create goals that don’t encompass these 4 mechanisms. When we begin to build goals that can harness these 4 mechanisms, we can begin to build lasting change in our lives.

Congratulations on making I through my first of 3 articles on the Science of Goal Setting. I will return next week with installment #2

And if you want to learn how to build a perfect system for achieving any goal, book yourself in for my seminar Goal Setting: Starting with Success January 26th at 10 Carden in Guelph.

You can purchase tickets here:


  1. Rothkopf, E., & Billington, M. (l979). Goal-guided learning from text: Inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 310–327

  2. Locke, E. A., & Bryan, J. (1969). The directing function of goals in task performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 35–42.

  3. Bandura, A., & Cervone, D. (1983). Self-evaluative and self-efficacy mechanisms governing the motivational effects of goal systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 1017–1028.

  4. Bryan, J., & Locke, E. (1967a). Goal setting as a means of increasing motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 51, 274–277.

  5. Sales, M. (1970). Some effects of role overload and role underload. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 5, 592–608.

  6. LaPorte, R., & Nath, R. (1976). Role of performance goals in prose learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 68, 260–264.

  7. Bryan, J., & Locke, E. (1967b). Parkinson’s law as a goal-setting phenomenon. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 2, 258– 275.

  8. Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (1975). Increasing productivity with decreasing time limits: A field replication of Parkinson’s law. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 524–526.

  9. Latham, G. P., & Kinne, S. B. (1974). Improving job performance through training in goal setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 59, 187–191.

  10. Smith, K., Locke, E., & Barry, D. (1990). Goal setting, planning and organizational performance: An experimental simulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 46, 118–134.