Why Goals Matter

I’ve discussed goals in the past, from the relationship between goals and emotions to the use of incremental goals (or personal bests). What I haven’t really discussed are the nut and bolts of goals, such as how we choose them and go about tackling them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to clarify some of these points here – a more comprehensive discussion can be found here.

Our goals might be simple ones, such as passing an exam or getting that promotion, but they also might be more complex, like being a better person (whatever that might mean to us in a subjective sense); they might be short-term (write that blog post for Monday) or long-term (emigrate to Canada before the age of 30). These specifics matter because they allow us to identify precise aims and to break larger goals down into smaller parts.

Goals and Emotions

A goal is based on where we are now and where it is we should be at some point in the future. If we are on track then we feel good about ourselves and experience positive and activating emotions. But if the route towards reaching our goal becomes blocked, we experience negative and deactivating emotions. This is why goal pursuit is related to emotions and the reason why goals arise so often in The Emotional Learner.

Some goals are, of course, more worthy of pursing than others. Generally speaking, goals such as being rich or being happy are more likely to be the side-effects of other goals; they make very poor goals in themselves, partly because they are so hard to realise and partly because the end-state tends to shift (they are goals with shifting posts, so to speak).

Aim High

…But ensure that your goal has a reasonable chance of success.

Let us take the example of a high achieving fifteen-year-old who has set her sights on becoming a doctor. Our student needs to transform herself from a school pupil to a medical professional and this can’t be done overnight. Becoming a doctor might be the end result but there could also be other motives at play, for example, the desire to help others (which could itself be related to an even higher existential aim – to find meaning in life by becoming a good person).

Within this good person frame, there will certainly be hierarchically nested frames (such as being a good student, a good friend, a good daughter and so on). Being a good student is therefore associated with, for example, working hard, being conscientious and adhering to rules and regulations imposed by the school as a whole and teachers generally. Further up the hierarchy, we find the more specific goals with their own nested frames, such as getting good exam grades and getting high grades in science subjects so that these can then be studied at a higher level.

We, therefore, break our goals down into steps that need completing before the next one can be attempted (our student can’t study medicine until she has first acquired the pre-requisite qualifications that would allow her to do that).

As each sub-goal is successfully completed, our student gains in confidence and competence, but when something happens that moves her further away from her goal, she can become de-motivated and despondent. Support networks are, therefore, important to ensure that our student is able to bounce back when inevitable setbacks occur.

A Note about self-evaluation

If goal behaviour is to be truly effective, progress must be self-referenced. What I mean by this is that we have the tendency to evaluate ourselves in comparison to others. Our future doctor might, therefore, compare herself to her peers. If they are doing better than she is, this can lead to a drop in motivation because suddenly the objective appears less worthwhile. Rather then peer-reference, one should self-reference, asking: how do I differ from the person I was yesterday? Have I made any incremental gains (no matter how tiny)?

Establish micro-routines

Goal pursuit begins by establishing micro-routines that eventually become automatic. These might include useful study habits. I once taught a particularly determined and highly motivated student who would spend time each evening sorting through her notes, clarifying areas she didn’t quite understand and re-writing the notes she felt were less than comprehensive. This behaviour had become a habit, an automatic routine that ran each day at a specific time. If, for some reason, she didn’t do it, she would feel frustrated and slightly out of sorts with herself.

This is an extreme example and I doubt the average student would have the motivational capacity to approach their studies in such a determined way. Smaller and more manageable routines are easily achieved once the habit has been formed, leading to the successful completion of sub-goals and the forward momentum towards the ultimate goal.

The importance of routines

Routines make it easier for us to create more useful routines, in other words, the creation of useful habits makes habit formation more successful. Accumulating such habits also makes it easier to work towards both the ultimate goal and the nested goals. If our aim is to become a better person, engaging in regular acts of kindness will work towards that goal. Once such behaviour has become automatic, we can forget about engaging on a conscious level because it requires no direct, conscious thought.


By concentrating on goal pursuit we give ourselves the capacity to do rather than not do. This means that we can also reduce the incidence of procrastination, especially if we concentrate on small steps and self-referenced evaluations. Furthermore, by creating habits (or automatic routines) we can further reduce procrastination by effortlessly sliding into a set of sub-routines  that require little conscious effort.

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