Setting goals is an essential practice for living a happy and fulfilling life. Goals provide you with purpose, direction, and motivation. They give you something to strive for and they force you to change and improve yourself to achieve them. Goals are good things.

The act of setting goals isn’t always as simple as defining what you want and then going after it. There’s actually a science behind it that, if followed, enables the true power of setting and achieving goals.

Back in 1990, Professors Edwin Locke and Gary Latham published A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance, in which they identified five principles of effective goal setting.

The principles are:

  • Clarity
  • Challenge
  • Commitment
  • Feedback
  • Task Complexity

Their combined research makes a correlation between the achievement of our goals and the extent to which the five principles were present.

Basically, if you follow these tips, you will be much more likely to set effective goals and achieve them.

Let’s take a closer look at these 5 unspoken principles of goal setting.

1. Set Clear And Concise Goals

The first principle discussed by Locke and Latham was clarity. This means your goal should be very well defined and not be unclear or vague. You should be able to picture exactly what your life would look like after you achieve your goal and when you want it to happen.

Unclear goals are a recipe for fumbling around, hitting road blocks, and never really achieving what you want. After all, how do you know if you’ve accomplished a goal if you never really knew what you were after?

Think about it in terms of weight loss. An example of a terrible goal would be “I want to lose weight.”

Of course, don’t we all? A much better example of a clear, concise goal would be “I want to lose 10 pounds in 2 months.”

Having something concrete and measurable not only makes achieving your goals more likely, but also makes it much easier to track progress along the way.

2. Make Your Goals Challenging

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.” — Andrew Carnegie

Having a clear and concise goal isn’t enough to make it an effective one. It’s nearly as important to make sure that the goal you set for yourself is also challenging. It should be enough to test your character and make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Going back to the weight loss example, would you honestly feel good about yourself if you committed to losing just 1 pound over the the course of 2 months? You could essentially do nothing the first 7 weeks and then fast the night before your deadline to hit your mark.

Your goals have to be something worth fighting for. The research from Locke and Latham shows that challenging goals inspire increased performance. Meaning the level of effort you put in is directly related to the difficulty of the goal.

Ever hear someone say “Wow, so-and-so really rose up to the challenge of the occasion!”

That’s Locke and Latham’s theory in action. The more difficult the goal, the more effort you exert to achieve it and the better the sense of accomplishment you get from it.

3. Truly And Deeply Commit To Your Goals

People perform better when they care about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, plain and simple.

Try to think about the tasks you accomplish on a day-to-day basis at work. Which ones do you put the most effort into and which ones do you half-ass, just wishing they were over?

It’s the emotional commitment to your goals that gives you the motivation you need to accomplish them. If your goal is to lose weight, but you don’t actually care or need to, then why would you feel motivated to drop those unnecessary pounds? The short answer is that you wouldn’t.

To be successful, you need to make sure the goals you set are something you truly want and can fully be on board with.

4. Review And Acquire Feedback On Your Progress

“Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal.” – Prof. Edwin Locke

You are crazy if you think you can just set a worthwhile yearlong goal and in the end discover if you were able to reach your goal once your deadline comes and goes.

You need to have feedback along the way to ensure you’re making progress towards your goal, and to take stock of what’s working and what’s not.

Let’s, once again, return to the example of weight loss. If after two weeks you’ve managed to gain 5 pounds – oops, maybe you need to tweak your routine a little bit.

You wouldn’t want to wait until the 2 months is up and realize, “Oh crap, I’m not even close to my goal.”

Set some time aside every so often to step back, review your goals, and track your progress. Doing so will help you hit your mark and keep you motivated along the way.

5. Break Down Complex Tasks Into Simpler Tasks

If you’ve followed the second principle and set a challenging goal for yourself, by nature, it will probably have many complex tasks associated with its achievement. These tasks can be daunting and extremely overwhelming, especially when starting with a stack a mile high.

You have to break down these daunting tasks systematically into simpler, less-complicated tasks that are easier to approach and overcome.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Don’t get the wrong idea though. Nothing that is worth doing will ever be completely easy. There will undoubtedly be simple tasks that frustrate you and test your will to continue. That’s just the fact of the matter, especially when learning to accomplish something new.

Take things one at a time. Knock down the barriers and keep progressing forward.

Summing It All Up

The next time you sit down to assess or set your goals, don’t forget the principles you learned in reading this article. Using these principles will ensure you’re setting effective goals and will dramatically increase your chances of achieving them.

Like most things in life, goal setting is a practice that must be worked at. Keep the principles in mind, implement them in your life plans, and witness the greatness you will be able to achieve.

Featured photo credit: paul filitchkin via

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