Research shows that certain forms of goals work better than others.  Goals that are written, phrased in concrete and measurable terms, and difficult but not impossible are much more effective than those that are unrecorded, difficult to measure, ambiguous, or phrased as merely “do-your-best” exhortation.  Let’s discuss each of these in turn.

Written.  Writing down goals increases precision.  Writing increases accountability by presenting the achiever with a recording of what was intended and expected.  Thus, if someone affirms one day that they want to be an attorney, but does not write this down, it is easy to forget, easy to rationalize away.  Written goals stare back at you.

By engaging more senses in the process, writing also increases the achiever’s attention to the task of writing goals.  It takes time to write, and when writing out objectives it is much easier to see additional tasks that must be accomplished in order to meet a larger goal.

Concrete and Measurable.  If a goal is concrete and measurable, it will be dramatically more effective than an ambiguous “do your best” goal.  Again, let’s turn to the experts:  “specific goals direct action more reliably than vague or general goals.  The most effective way to make goals specific is to specify the activities to be performed or the results to be obtained in quantitative terms . . . . Quantification reduces ambiguity by allowing less leeway for individual interpretation.” (Locke & Latham (1984)).  The cliché – what gets measured gets done – is in fact true.

How can you tell if a goal is sufficiently concrete? Consider the following goals, taken from the web page of a college student:

“Learn how to write more effectively.”

“Work on revising skills instead of just writing then turning in a project.”

“Work on giving good constructive criticism.”

All of these goals, as far as we can understand them, are legitimate and worthy.  The writer wants to become better at her craft, wants to turn in polished work product, and wants to be able to provide helpful criticism to others in the class.

But looking at the first goal, how is she going to know whether she has learned to write more effectively?  What does she mean by “effective,” and how is she going to know when she is “more” effective than she is now?

Examining the second and third goals, what does it mean to “work on” revision skills?  And what “revising” skills is she trying to enhance—adding additional information, providing additional detail, enhancing vocabulary, evaluating unanswered questions, editing, all of the above, or something else? How will she know when she has accomplished that goal?  Similarly, what constitutes “good,” “constructive,” and “criticism”?

Working on these just a few minutes, we can reconstruct the first goal to be concrete and measurable.  This would ultimately depend on what the writer actually intended, but I can hypothesize some measurable alternatives:

Ask my professor to identify the aspects of my writing that most need improvement.

Take a class that is designed to address those areas identified by my professor.

Achieve a grade of at least a B+ in that class.

Attend at least ten tutoring sessions or free writing workshops on campus.

Ask professor for recommendations of at least three books that address areas of writing weakness, and read each of those books.

Ask my professor whether she will read and evaluate a piece of my writing after I have taken the steps above, to provide feedback about the extent to which I have improved.

See the difference?  In the revised goals, the student will know whether she has accomplished each goal.  She might not become a better writer, but she can measure each of these tasks, each task is designed to enhance her writing, and each task is clearly designed to increase the likelihood that she will in will fact become a better writer.

Now, let’s turn to the other two goals:  enhancing revision skills and constructive criticism skills.  Again, the particulars of more robust goals would depend on what the student really mean by her tasks, but the following rewrite would be a step in the right direction:

Spend two hours researching on the internet about what constitutes revision skills.

Ask my professor for three suggestions of books that provide solid guidance on the revision process in writing.

Identify three resources for further study.

Read each of those resources.

Apply the skills identified in each of those resources to the next five papers I turn in for a grade.

Compare the grades received on those five papers to the last five papers turned in for a grade prior to undertaking this effort to enhance revision skills, looking for differences in the quality of writing and grade achieved.

Develop three additional tasks, if necessary, if results have not improved.

The same method could turn a mushy “good constructive criticism” goal into something more solid.  Sometimes, as in this example, it might be difficult to measure when that goal has been accomplished.  But the process of evaluating what might serve as indicators of success would itself yield valuable insights.  Would it indicate success if at least two of my classmates stopped me after class to follow up on criticism I provided during class, or to single me out for thanks?  Would it indicate success if the professor specifically followed up on three of my in-class criticisms, expanding on why those were valid and useful?

Difficult, but not Impossible.  This is the area of goal-making that is most challenging to many achievers.  Research repeatedly shows that most people set goals far too low.  They don’t understand what they are capable of, and they fear failure.  Yet research also shows that difficult goals create greater achievement. (Locke & Latham, 1984).  Even when the achiever falls short of the ultimate goal, “partial success can be an effective substitute for complete success, especially if due credit is given for it.” (Id.)


Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, Goal Setting – A Motivational Technique That Works! (1984).