The importance of Goal Setting

January 19, 2024

by Dr Phil Clarke - lecturer, researcher and consultant in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology

As we start a new year, this allows an ideal opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of our life, career, or sport etc.

Goals are something that we set in our daily lives, whether it is something you want to achieve in your career, becoming a healthier version of yourself or making the first team in your given sport.

Goal setting is one of the most effective skills to engage in, yet it is one skill that so many use ineffectively. Many people set goals that are not thought out or planned and evidently set themselves up to fail. The aim of this piece is to provide some useful info on goal setting and ways to do it effectively.

Goals provide direction and drive towards a target we are trying to obtain.

This sounds very simple, but achieving goals often coincides with many challenges that arise throughout.

So why is it important to set goals?

Firstly, setting a goal outlines the desired result and aspiration you are trying to achieve; secondly it helps to create momentum as you move closer towards your goal; thirdly it allows you to have a vision of accomplishment and as you achieve it you begin to set bigger and more difficult goals to strive towards; and finally it encourages you to take accountability for your career and where you want to get too. 

One of these main challenges is a lack of motivation. One cause of a loss of motivation is that individuals may lose sight of what their main goal or target is. But setting a goal and making sure that this goal is visible for yourself, and your support team is key for many reasons.

So, when it comes to goal setting it is important for you to have goals both related to your career and your personal life. This ensures that you have something to focus outside of career where you can place your energy and drive when you are not working and gives you an outlet when you need to take your mind off your work.

The three types of goals you can set vary in their level of specificity based on what you are trying to achieve, and the level of difficulty required in completing the task.  

1. Outcome goal focusses simply on the outcome of an event, winning or losing for example, a certain health metric, a financial goal, achieving a certificate, increase revenue etc.These goals are usually more long term in nature. 

2. Performances goals are where individuals set goals for their level of actual performance in relation to the standard of excellence.  

3. Process goals usually focus on the technique an individual wants to achieve (e.g. getting the bar down to your chest on a chest press), performing a certain action (e.g. spend30 minutes a day checking emails), or carrying out a specific strategy (e.g. delegate two tasks a week).  

These goals are like building blocks, whereby solid process goals lead to achievement of performance goals which leads to increase likelihood of achievement of outcome goals.

Although all three goals are beneficial for enhancing performance, the biggest mistake people make is that they focus all their attention on the outcome goal, which is usually something that is outside of their control or isn’t necessarily clearly defined at present. It is important that your attention is focussed on things that are within your control. This means that you become accountable for whether you achieve this goal or not.

Therefore, performance and process goals are so important, as they are very much within the control of the goal-setter. Research also shows that those individuals who set process and performance goals, rather than just outcome goals, experienced less anxiety, have greater confidence, improved concentration, and improved overall satisfaction and enhanced performance.

So, in essence, ensuring your goals are within your control is very important, and should be incorporated into your goal setting plan alongside outcome goals. Particularly emphasis on process is key is desired when the outcome goal is difficult to define, when you are developing the plan of action and when the outcome goal is quite complex.

One thing before we discuss the aspects associated with setting these goals effectively: there are two distinct factors that need to be taken into consideration when setting goals effectively.

One reflects understanding the “science”, which is about understanding the literature and models associated with goals setting. The second reflects the “art” of goal setting. This is probably the most difficult part to get right but is what makes goal setting the powerful tool mentioned.

The reason this part is more difficult is this is where the individual and the situation are taken into consideration during the process. The individual’s personality traits and the situational constraints both need to be considered with the following goal setting tips. Therefore, these tips need to be viewed within this context. Here is where SMARTER goals are essential.








Specific:Specificity is essential

Measurable: If you can’t measure progress or measure what you want to improve, how can you see if you have made progression?

Achievable: You need to ensure that goals are both challenging and realistic. This is where the“art” of goal setting really comes into play.  If goals are too challenging or not attainable then you might lose motivation and experience increased feelings of anxiety and stress. Whereas, setting goals too easy means you might not progress as it’s too easy. 

Realistic: Again, here is the art of science– although it may be achievable – is it realistic within the current context (time frame, situation, resources available etc).

Time-bound:When do you want to achieve this by -This will help provide a goal attainment attitude instead of saying “I will start Monday”. 

Exciting: If it isn’t exciting, why would you do it?

Recorded: “ink it, don’t think it”. By recording the goal, you make a commitment to yourself that this is something you want to achieve.

When planning goals out its important to consider the achievement goal strategies available.

One useful strategy here from a process goal perspective is to consider what is gained from achieving the goal reward (this will enhance the excitement aspect and help gain insight into the “why” behind the goal). But also, to consider what are the top three biggest barriers to goal achievement. This allows for effective problem solving when setting the process goals.  

Lastly, the initial goal setting should be a starter place not the end. This is another big mistake individuals make when setting goals. You should monitor and re-evaluate your goals periodically based on current performances, and then based on the original goal; the goal should be made easier or more difficult accordingly.  This will help to keep the goals realistic but also challenging at the same time.

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