Having goals is like having a roadmap for our lives. They provide us with directions on where to go. The same goes for health goals—they help us improve our well-being. Goals are essential when we want to make a change, as it means figuring out specific things we want. Equally important is planning how to accomplish them.
The New Year marks a time when many people set goals, often focusing on their health (1). As optimizing health is part of our core, in this series of 3 articles, we’ll explore the science of goal setting. Our previous post introduced goal setting and its phases. Now, let’s look at what makes goals different from each other and how we can define goals to get better results. It turns out that not all goals are created equal…
What to consider when setting goals?
Research in behavior science and psychology suggests that several aspects are important regarding goal setting. One of the most important aspects is how the goal is framed. Is the goal framed as an achievement or avoidance? Another important aspect is if the goal relates to performance or mastering a skill. The perceived difficulty of the goal also plays a role. Despite appearing as mere “wording,” studies suggest that the way the goal is formulated can influence goal achievement (2).
Goal formulation- positive approach vs avoidance
How the goal is framed is pretty important (2). Positively framed goals help us to move forward with desired outcomes. Avoidance goals, on the other hand, prevent us from achieving the desired outcomes. One example of a positively framed goal is “I will have a fruit for my snack in the afternoon.” An example of an avoidance goal would be “I will not have a candy or a cookie in the afternoon.” Although both statements promote healthy snacking, different cognitive and emotional processes are involved. Positive approach goals are associated with positive emotions-, and greater psychological well-being. Avoidance goals, however, are associated with fewer positive thoughts and greater negative emotions (2). Given these insights, it may be more helpful to set a positive approach goal than an avoidance goal.
Types of goals- performance vs mastery goals
When we talk about performance and mastery goals, we talk about how we approach learning (2). Performance goals focus on judging and evaluating ourselves, while mastery goals, also called learning goals, are about improving existing skills and learning new ones.
An example of a performance goal can be “Run a 5K in under 30 minutes within the next three months”, where a mastery goal would be “Develop a consistent and enjoyable exercise routine, incorporating a variety of activities like jogging, yoga, and weight training, to improve overall fitness and well-being over the next six months.”
If we don’t achieve a performance goal, we might feel like we failed, but challenges in pursuing a mastery goal are seen as a normal part of learning as it encourages problem-solving and active involvement. Choosing mastery goals is also linked to better confidence in our abilities, improved performance, and gaining more knowledge.
This knowledge informs that a performance goal should be set together with a mastery goal (2). For instance, if someone sets a performance goal to lose a certain amount of weight within a specific timeframe and doesn’t achieve it, they might feel discouraged and think they can’t lose weight. A better approach would be to also set mastery goals alongside the performance goal. For instance, learning to cook nutritious meals and trying a new physical activity could be mastery goals supporting the weight loss goal. If the planned weight loss doesn’t happen, the person might realize that the chosen approach isn’t suitable and can try a different one. Mastery goals help individuals stay motivated and persistent, especially when facing challenges or feeling discouraged.
Difficulty of goals – difficult vs easy
Understanding goal difficulty has mainly come from studies in organizational psychology. These studies consistently show that challenging goals, particularly when there is commitment, provide superior results compared to easy goals (2). The commitment to a goal is influenced by factors like intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy. Intrinsically motivated goals are very rewarding, which makes individuals more likely to attempt challenging goals despite their difficulty. This intrinsic motivation is linked to improved learning and performance, making challenging goals more beneficial. Self-efficacy- confidence in achieving a goal, is enhanced by setting and achieving challenging goals but can diminish with repeated failure, impacting satisfaction and future performance. Therefore, it is recommended that one sets intrinsically motivating goals, recognizing that the optimal difficulty level depends on goal commitment, motivation, and self-efficacy.
SMART goal setting
Many people, especially those in corporate settings, are familiar with annual performance reviews and SMART goal setting. Similarly, health-related goals can also benefit from being SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (2), (3), (4).
- Specific: Clearly define the goal. For increased physical activity, specify how much more activity you want.
- Measurable: Make the goal quantifiable. If it’s about physical activity, state the frequency and duration of exercise per week.
- Achievable: Ensure the goal is realistically attainable. For instance, planning to go to the gym every day for 1 hour might be challenging if you have a busy schedule and family commitments.
- Relevant: Align the goal with personal motivation and intrinsic factors.
- Time-bound: Set a specific timeframe for goal achievement. Breaking down bigger goals into smaller, closer-in-time objectives can make them less overwhelming. For example, aiming to lose 2 kg in a month may feel more manageable than targeting 20 kg in a year.
When it comes to setting goals, our primary focus at NEM lies in optimizing health through a proactive, personalized, and data-driven approach. We analyze our clients´ data in detail, and, e.g., if we detect early-stage atherosclerosis and elevated LDL-cholesterol levels, we do not simply present the lab results. Instead, we engage with our clients by providing medical treatment and educating them on the implications. When there is a clear understanding of the link between LDL-cholesterol, nutrition, and cardiac disease, this knowledge becomes a powerful driver for change that fosters intrinsic motivation. We then collaboratively set goals that align with clinical needs and client wishes. When we set goals, we follow the recommendations outlined in the article. We focus on a positive approach, mastering goals, and setting realistic yet challenging and rewarding goals. It is essential to be clear on the goal, timeframe, and how it needs to be accomplished (discussed in our action plan). We are there for our clients every step of the way to provide support and guidance.
In conclusion, considering all criteria helps you focus on your desires, set clear standards for success, and ensure goals are intrinsically motivating, with a positive approach, mastery-based, and appropriately challenging. Remember, it is always a good idea to write down your goals. However, even with the best approach to setting goals, more is needed to achieve the desired health outcome. A limitation of setting up goals, even SMART goals, is that they don’t detail how the goal will be carried out. To address this, an action plan for goal implementation is needed, which we will discuss during our next post.
- Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE. 2020 Dec 9;15(12):e0234097.
- Bailey RR. Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Sep 13;13(6):615–8.
- Lenzen SA, Daniëls R, van Bokhoven MA, van der Weijden T, Beurskens A. Disentangling self-management goal setting and action planning: A scoping review. PLoS ONE. 2017 Nov 27;12(11):e0188822.
- Hooker SA, Punjabi A, Justesen K, Boyle L, Sherman MD. Encouraging Health Behavior Change: Eight Evidence-Based Strategies. Fam Pract Manag. 2018 Mar;25(2):31–6.