Does Goal Setting & Purposeful Goals Lead to Purposeful Practice?

The art of goal setting will always revert back to the identification of a desire, target or wish to achieve something across multiple aspects of an individual’s life. Whether it is losing weight, learning a new skill or simply walking more steps each day, each goal is always unique to the individual. Lifestyle, values and definitions of success are all factors which affect our goals and how we go about achieving them. I have often wondered whether they are actually useful or are they just a buzz term used by many. Physically, mentally or emotionally, can they help us thrive in our day to day lives?

Goal setting helps us measure progress, be accountable and overcome procrastination on the path to desired success. In my remit as a strength and conditioning coach, the art of creating goals is fundamental to improving sports performance in the gym. Traditionally, they are specific and measurable with a clear time frame to be achieved. Specificity creates a platform for a goal to be purposeful and achievable. They should be conceivable so that one can understand the concept of a goal clearly. Believable, so that the desired aim can actually be achieved. The more believable to yourself and others around you, the more likely it is to be achieved. Finally, all goals should be realistically achievable. Do your given strengths and weaknesses allow you to reach your desired target? For example, as nice as it would be, I am not going to build a billion-dollar company within the next 6 months.

A theme that runs frequently throughout goals set across all walks of life, is the aim to increase motivation in achieving tasks and targets. Early goal-setting theory research is based on the premise that most human action is purposeful and is directed by conscious goals. In fact, all levels of living organisms, including plants are characterized by goal-directed behaviour. Research has shown that motivation stems from physiological need deprivation, which then drives organisms to become involved with random activity until these needs are satisfied. Other theories suggest that motivation and behaviour is led by reinforcement. Consequences that follow behaviour, making subsequent, similar responses more likely occur in similar situations. It can be said that the motivation we try to find through goal-directed behaviour, is part of a responsive drive to establish identity and security.

A key influence in finding motivation on the quest to smash our goals comes at the very start through the form of goal acceptance and goal commitment. Once an individual has come to terms with accepting their goal, there are a number of elements that contribute to how much we commit to them. The first one being importance. An individual or a team is more likely to complete what they are committing to when they prioritise the importance of the task. You must find the goal important and be able to identify with it to believe you can achieve it. Another aspect to consider is an individual’s self-efficacy. The concept of self-efficacy refers to a person’s ability to influence events that have an impact on their lives. This belief is the foundation for human motivation, performance accomplishments and emotional well-being. An individual who possesses high self-efficacy would be confident that they have a strong, positive belief in their capacity of skills to achieve their goals. An example of this would be a student who is not particularly gifted in a certain subject but believes in their own ability to learn it well.

There are a number of determinants that make a goal purposeful or not. One factor we can look at is goal difficulty. They should be set high enough to encourage high performance but low enough to be attainable. If goals are set too high or too difficult, this can lead to a decrease in motivation and commitment to the cause. Finding this optimal level may take a few attempts and adjustment may be needed. The integrity of a goal is also crucial too. Research has shown that people have a tendency to be dishonest meaning that they fall short of their goals. An extreme example of this would be the business practices of Ford in the 1970s. As part of Ford’s goal to gain relevance in the foreign car market economy, they cut corners to meet product deadlines in order to release the Pinto. The Ford Pinto was a PR disaster due to regular rear fuel-tank fires. The size of this goal, and the dishonesty by making shortcuts lead to a reported 53 consumer deaths.

Whether we are working towards a group or an individual goal, there are different mechanisms we can put in place to make sure the dream becomes a reality. These mechanisms have been shown to increase motivation in achieving set tasks and goals. The first of these mechanisms is direct attention. When an individual or team can focus attention on behaviours that will accomplish the goal, they also divert attention away from behaviours that will not achieve the goal. For example, a pupil trying to become proficient at their times tables, you would expect them to focus their efforts on spending extra time on this given task in order to become stronger in this area. Another mechanism we can use is called energizing. This relates to a certain amount of effort one puts out based on the difficulty of achieving one’s goal. This is paired well with the next mechanism of task persistence. Research suggests that we are more likely to see positive behaviour and goals being achieved by the amount of time spent working towards the goal. The final mechanism relates to effective strategies. In wanting to achieve a goal set, an individual will seek out new and different ways to achieve it. An example being a boxing athlete wanting to reduce their body weight for competition. They may seek out different diets and strategies to make weight for a fight.

How does all this actually influence us in our day to lives and how can we apply this to ourselves? Different elements of all these theories and beliefs can be put together to create purposeful goals, with the hope of achieving purposeful practice. Whether it be setting ourselves goals or even other people, there are clear benefits of taking time out to draw an action plan to be on track for what we are trying to achieve. Taking time to reflect on where you begin, to where you are at, or where you finish can benefit how we look at our current goals or ones we are planning for the future. In this current climate of uncertainty, it is important that we are working towards something, a goal that is realistic and one that we can achieve. It is also important that we are not too harsh on ourselves if we aren’t achieving the things we want to at the moment. If we are being critical and real, creating an unrealistic goal will lead to negative emotions and there is no point beating ourselves up about something that was never really in our grasp anyway. However, however big or small, each goal achieved is always a win and will create headway for future ones we set for ourselves.

Joseph Woolley | RHT Wills and Graduate Assistant

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