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How goal-setting can put you on the path to success

As a sport psychologist, Dr Melissa Weinberg has had practical experience in helping athletes to use goal-setting techniques to improve performance. But these techniques aren’t just relevant to athletes – Dr Weinberg believes that everyone is a performer in their own right, and explains how goal-setting is important for motivation and general wellbeing. These are her recommendations for implementing goal-setting in your own life.

One of the most popular psychological skills for improving an athlete’s performance is goal-setting. This is telling of the power that lies in the simple skill, and how well it can work for you in the journey to your own success.

With so many types of goals you can set – short-term and long-term goals; individual and team goals; process and outcome goals; even five year goals – how on earth do you know if the ones you’re setting for yourself are worthwhile?

Why should you set goals?

A sense of achievement is absolutely crucial to our general wellbeing. Working towards a goal allows us to feel like we’re actively engaging in a strategy to achieve a target.

The great thing is we don’t have to actually achieve our goal in its entirety in order to feel a sense of achievement. As we make progress towards that goal, our progressive achievement both makes us feel good and motivates us to keep working towards it. Feeling in control of the progress we’re making also helps us to keep striving.

The power in goal-setting is believed to lie in the articulation of the difference between where we are now, and where we want to be. Anyone who writes a checklist for the things they want to get done in a day is already a pro at this – they know what they need to get done, and their brain gives them a hit of dopamine each time an item gets checked off.

That feeling of triumph you get at the end of the day reflects the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done everything you set out to achieve.

Are some types of goals better than others?

A major distinction exists in the literature between process goals and outcome goals. While outcome goals refer to the intended result, process goals shift the focus instead onto the things you need to do in order to achieve the outcome. The idea is that if you focus on the process, the outcome will follow.

Many people make the mistake of setting outcome goals, and fail to realise that often the outcome isn’t in your control. Using sport as an example, a swimmer might set a goal to win a gold medal at a competition, but whether or not they win the race is not entirely up to them. An athlete can give their absolute best performance and still not win a medal, because someone else in the race simply swam faster. In this case, they may feel discouraged at not achieving their goal, even though they reached their performance potential.

'While outcome goals refer to the intended result, process goals shift the focus instead onto the things you need to do in order to achieve the outcome. The idea is that if you focus on the process, the outcome will follow.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

By focusing on the process, the athlete can prepare and train for the event and do everything within their power to put themselves in the best possible position to perform at their optimal level. Even if they don’t succeed, they can yield a sense of achievement from having completed the process as intended.

Try putting your own life into that metaphor, focusing on the things you need to do to feel that you’re getting to where you want to be. Visualise yourself as the swimmer and imagine the hours and effort you need to put in to achieve your goals. By incorporating process goals in your life you can strive to reach your potential, without allowing alternative outcomes to discourage you.

Why set SMART goals?

The term SMART goal has become so ubiquitous that nobody really sets goals that aren’t SMART goals these days. SMART stands for goals that are: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and have a time-frame. The more particular you are about your goal, the better you’ll be able to plan out the steps you need to achieve it.

How should you set goals?

One of the biggest things that people fail to consider is what could go wrong in the pursuit of your goals. When we actually pay attention to thinking about what could go wrong, we’re able to factor that into our goal setting strategy. A question I like to ask my clients is, ‘What are you willing to sacrifice in order to achieve your goals?’

I suggest a seven-step goal-setting process:

  1. State your goal in a sentence – i.e. my goal is…
  2. Identify the actions that define your goal – i.e. the actions that define my goal are…
  3. Imagine having achieved your goal – construct an image of you having achieved your goal – what are you thinking? What are you feeling? What are you doing?
  4. Identify barriers to achieving your goal – what could get in the way?
  5. Make a deal with yourself – acknowledge what you’re willing to sacrifice, and what you’re not willing to sacrifice in order to achieve your goal.
  6. Make a plan – list the things that you can do in order to achieve your goal.
  7. Acknowledge success – how will you know if you’ve achieved your goal?

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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