What are goals, and why are they valuable? As we’ll discover, these are fruitful questions.

What Is A Goal?

At its most basic, Locke and Latham define a goal as “the object or aim of an action.” (Locke & Latham, 1984). Writing about goals in the workplace, they continue, “there are many familiar concepts that are similar in meaning to that of goal:  e.g., task: a piece of work to be accomplished; performance standard: a measuring rod for evaluating performance . . . ; quota: an assigned amount of work or production; . . . objective: the ultimate aim of an action; deadline:  a time limit for accomplishing some task; and budget:  a spending limit for an individual, project, department, or organization.”

In other words, a goal may be considered a way of when an action has been accomplished.  This post focuses on the basic question:  why have goals at all – that is, what is their value?

Why Have Goals?

Nearly 2,500  years ago, Aristotle wrote, “Man is a goal-seeking animal.  His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.” Why should Aristotle have such confidence?  Why are goals so valuable, so central to the human condition?

At bottom, goals lead to achievement.  The link is incredibly strong, for this is one of the most researched facts about goals over the past 40 years.  As Locke and Latham wrote two decades ago, “there have been more than 110 goal setting experiments conducted in laboratory and organizational settings in just the past twelve years.  Ninety percent of these studies obtained positive results for goal setting,” making “goal setting one of the most dependable and robust techniques in all the motivational literature.”  (Locke & Latham, 1984). How does goal-setting achieve such robust results?  Through numerous reinforcing patterns.

First, goals provide motivation.  They provide targets, allowing someone to know what is expected. If a person does not know what they are working toward, she will not know whether given effort in a given direction is likely to be helpful or harmful. A person with no goals is without direction. Since motivation is premised upon having a motive, that is, an intention or objective, it is impossible to be motivated without one or more goals.  By establishing destinations, goals lead to action.

Second, goals provide a sense of accomplishment.  When a person achieves a goal, they tend to feel good about it.  There is value in being able to see that one has reached a milestone. Even if that goal was only one step along the way in an arduous path, it had sufficient significance that someone noted it as an indicator of achievement.

There is something else very important about this sense of accomplishment. Feeling good makes a person more likely to replicate the behavior, creating a virtuous cycle.  In other words, setting and achieving goals leads to setting and achieving additional goals.

Third, goals provide clarity. Formulated properly (as we will discuss in another post), goals provide clear targets.  They give someone something clear to aim for, a direction in which to travel. This point is related to the sense of motivation, above. Goals motivate largely to the extent they provide clarity.

Fourth, goals promote control. By providing direction, goals permit someone to feel under greater control of his or her life and future. Someone who has goals may well recognize that others necessarily influence his life. But even so, the person with goals has a sense that he is also shaping his destiny.

Fifth, goals promote accountability.  Goals provide a ready means of measuring progress.  Either a person meets a goal, or not.

Sixth, goals relieve boredom, especially with monotonous work.

Finally, goals provide a coherent sense of self.  If a person wanders aimlessly through life, he will find it hard to describe, either to himself or to others, what he is doing of where he is going.  As noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explained in his seminal work, Finding Flow, “[i]t is through the patterned investment of psychic energy provided by goals that one creates order in experience.  This order, which manifests itself in predictable actions, emotions, and choices, in time becomes recognizable as a more or less unique ‘self.’” (Csikszentmihalyi, (1997)).

Goals – We Gotta Have’em?

It may be futile to even try to avoid goals.  Aristotle may have been more correct than he supposed at the time.  Substantial research into evolutionary biology over the past twenty years suggests that deep inside, we operate according to goals whether we want to or not.

Biology functions on a goal-seeking basis.  Our genes, according to this theory, create our drives and have, over time, created our patterns of thought.  One of those patterns of thought is the basic drive to accomplish objectives.  As Robert Wright explained in his controversial but important work, The Moral Animal, “the commonsense way of thinking about the relation between our thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and our pursuit of goals, on the other, is not just wrong, but backward.  We tend to think of ourselves as making judgments and then behaving accordingly,” he explains, but “if evolutionary psychology is on track, the whole picture needs to be turned inside out.  We believe the things—about morality, personal worth, even objective truth—that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation.”  (Wright, (1994)). Thus, “It is the behavioral goals—status, sex, effective coalition, parental investment, and so on—that remain steadfast while our view of reality adjusts to accommodate this constancy.  What is in our genes’ interests is what seems ‘right’—morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order.”

We want, perhaps, because wanting is in our interests.  And we strive most effectively when we clearly define our goals.

Sources:

E. Locke and G. Latham, Goal Setting – A Motivational Technique That Works! (1984).

M. Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow (1997).

R. Wright, The Moral Animal at 324-325 (1994).