A Scientifically Proven Framework For Achieving Goals
Most meaningful goals require hard work over months or even years. But despite people’s best intentions, they often struggle with achieving goals because they fail to maintain motivation over the long haul.
So how do you stay motivated, especially when your goals are big and you are likely to encounter setbacks along the way?
In this post you will learn about Expectancy Theory, and how our 4-step framework can help ensure you don’t miss a goal again. The framework focuses on the process of reaching goals, from how to set goals in the first place to how to overcoming setbacks along the way. We’ve incorporated over 45 research articles from cognitive, clinical, and evolutionary psychology, some of which have demonstrated increases in motivation and goal success by up to 200%.
Why the process matters for achieving goals
So what is Expectancy Theory? This theory – which is supported by dozens of studies and integrated into numerous other theories of motivation – states that motivation is a product of two things: how much you value your goal and how much you believe you can achieve your goal. It’s a formula for achieving goals. See below.
According to the formula, a failure to achieve goals results from a failure in one or both parts of motivation. Long-term goals are particularly susceptible to failure because people often undervalue the goals’ benefit and underestimate their own ability to achieve them. This occurs because:
- You fail to clearly evaluate your goal at the start, and the positive gains in reaching the goal do not accrue for a long time (leading to the slow drop in goal value)
- It is hard to see evidence that today’s small actions matter to something so abstract and far away, especially when encountering setbacks along the way (leading to the slow drop in goal belief)
As a solution to this problem, the following framework will get you to focus on the goal-setting process of motivation so that you can stay the course on the work ambitions that are important for you. Specifically, the tactics you’ll do will help in dealing with both variables in the formula above so that you won’t see a slow drop in either goal value (Steps 1 and 2) or goal belief (Steps 3 and 4). Specifically, the following exercises will help you:
- increase goal value early on through setting clear goal definitions.
- increase goal value throughout by practicing future-focused thinking.
- increase goal belief by building in regular, trackable measures of your progress.
- increase goal belief by building buffers against inevitable challenges and failures.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Increase goal value through setting clear goal definitions
Going back to the Expectancy Theory formula, to boost motivation you need to ensure your goal is valuable to you right from the beginning.
To be valuable, your goal needs to help you achieve your overarching ambition — whether it is to “be outstanding at sales” or “establish a successful business,” or whatever else. But such broad, flexible ambitions can be difficult to tackle. Thus, to increase your motivation, consciously set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timed—that is, “SMART.”
Take a moment to think about a goal you currently have. How could you make it SMART? Perhaps you already make your goals according to the criteria. If that is the case, consider whether you can reexamine your progress and make this goal even SMARTer? Below is a a simple example.
- Specific – Clearly define your goal. Who, what, where, and how? Be detailed.
- Measurable – Establish how you will evaluate whether you have reached your goal. What will you assess and how will you quantify it? Include numbers.
- Attainable – Ensure your goal is challenging but realistic. Is it something that doesn’t rely too much on luck or circumstances beyond your control?
- Relevant – Ensure this goal serves your overarching ambition. Why did you choose this goal? Does it serve your values and ultimate aspiration(s)?
- Timed – Set a clear schedule with deadlines. Include specific dates.
Not-so-smart Goal: Increase online sales substantially.
SMARTer Goal: Work with Marketing and IT teams to target European customers to increase net revenue from online subscription sales by €10,000 per month by June 30.
Input from colleagues may also help hone your SMART goals. Consider, for example, a team activity where each individual has to make a shared goal SMARTer. Then compare people’s solutions and ask: Where and how do they differ? Why? Is there a SMARTest goal that the group can all agree on?
Step 2: Increase goal value by practicing future-forward thinking
Even with SMART goals, people still lose motivation over time. This happens in part because a psychological tendency called “delay discounting” warps our ability to properly value benefits that occur in the future.
Delay discounting describes how rewards decrease in value the farther they occur in the future. Many people, for example, prefer $10 today over $15 next month.
This discounting happens in our brains automatically—people devalue future gains and prefer immediate gratification without consciously thinking about it. This automatic tendency likely developed in the human brain because our ancestors survived more often when they ate their food and used their resources immediately, because the future was dangerous and uncertain.
Evolution cares only about these short-term strategies. But delay discounting, as one of these short-term strategies, wreaks havoc on achieving your long-term goals because that is its primary function: to make you undervalue long-term choices and overvalue short-term choices; to make you act now. Having this truncated perspective on time is a real goal-killer.
Taking this into consideration, let’s return back to the formula for achieving goals that we started with:
How can you increase the value of your long-term goals and reduce delay discounting? Growing evidence suggests one effective way is to engage in what psychologist call “episodic future thinking.”
Episodic future thinking describes imagining yourself in future experiences. Imagine that it is next spring, and you are lounging on a beach with the breeze in your hair and the sun in your face. This is an episodic future thought (and quite a lovely one at that).
To reduce delay discounting as much as possible (and bring more value to your long-term goals), make sure the future experiences that you imagine are:
- Related to your goal. Will achieving your goal potentially lead to this experience? Were you able to take the beach vacation in part because you reached your goal? Would imagining something else be more related—perhaps that you successfully developed a cool new product, got a raise, or moved up the ranks within your company?
- Positive. Is the experience enjoyable? Do you actually like going to the beach?
- Exciting. Does imagining the experience energize you? Is a beach vacation something you would find fun and invigorating?
- Realistic. Is this something that feasibly could happen? Perhaps you would like to win the Nobel Prize too, but what is the chance you could make that happen?
- Vivid. Does it include specific details? What is the time and setting? What do you feel, smell, and see? How does the sand feel on your toes, do you hear the crashing of the waves?
A great thing about future episodic thinking is that the possibilities are endless and you can do it almost anywhere. So next time you are feeling unmotivated, take a few minutes to sit back and daydream about experiencing something great in the future. But be sure that what you’re imagining includes the features listed above.
Step 3: Build motivational belief by tracking your progress
Next we turn to the second half of the motivation equation – your belief that you can achieve the goal. Step 3 addresses how people often underestimate their ability for achieving goals because it is difficult to see evidence of how today’s small behaviors matter to such big, far-away outcomes.
In contrast, it is easy to see when your actions are not productive–whether it’s because you know you spend too much time watching cat videos or because you regularly work 14 hour days and still haven’t achieved your goal. Either way, precisely because your goal is big and long-term, you fail to recognize the evidence that you are making progress and so you begin to underestimate your ability to achieve it.
Creating and rewarding subgoals to track your progress can help you recognize the evidence that you’re achieving goals even though it may not feel like it.
Subgoals make your rewards more immediate and your evidence for goal success more obvious. When creating your subgoals:
- Work backwards from the big-picture long-term goals down to the weekly goals. This is sometimes called reverse planning, and it has been shown to boost motivation and productivity.
- Identify what needs to be completed before the final goal. Work back in time setting deadlines for each piece along the way.
- Subgoals should include multiple different timepoints–for example, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly subgoals.
- Do not get bogged down in specific, unique daily goals at this point. But do consider whether repeated, process-focused daily goals could be helpful. These goals are not about outcomes, but instead about developing helpful behaviors. With repetition, they can turn into habits that keep you on track even when your willpower is low. Examples might include:
- calling potential clients from 9-10am every weekday morning.
- using software to block email and distracting websites from 1-4pm every afternoon.
- taking a coffee-and-walk break any time you start getting fatigued to clear your mind and re-energize your body.
- Consider creating a visual representation of your goals. Something that highlights what you have achieved and how you are moving in time towards your bigger goals. Some examples:
- An old fashioned paper calendar where goals are highlighted.
- Goal tracking apps or shared spreadsheets that track the various points in goal status (relevant if your goals are shared among others in a team).
- Get creative. If you are in a pharma company, perhaps huge test tubes that fill up a bit each time you enroll new patients or get more research funding.
- Schedule time to reassess your subgoals at regular intervals. Evaluate what is and is not working, and update over time.
Reward yourself for each subgoal
Some reward comes intrinsically from achieving your goals – it just feels good to do them. But to boost the incentive and highlight evidence of your accomplishments, it helps to also include explicit rewards.
These rewards can be small and should be tied to successful completion of the subgoal. This is about acknowledging and praising your progress rather than the rewards themselves. Indeed having a big financial reward for a small or vague accomplishment might even decrease future motivation. Perhaps you get a fancy coffee for reaching your daily goal, or you provide your team early leave on Friday for reaching their monthly goal.
Importantly, ensure your rewards are relatively quick and reliable. If you’re the kind of person who is bad at following through on rewards for yourself, consider:
- Automating the reward/making the delivery of it a habit. Consider whether there is any way to automate the reward. Perhaps every single day you schedule a coffee break at the same time and you walk to get a fancy coffee shop drink if you completed your goal or your regular Keurig cup if you didn’t.
- Enlisting social support/pressure. Team up with a colleague or friend to check in daily or weekly on your subgoal status, and reward each other accordingly.
- Involving your favorite charity. If you feel uncomfortable rewarding yourself directly, or are just really motivated to be good to others, then consider rewarding yourself by giving a set amount of money to your favorite charity.
Remember that this is all about increasing your motivation by making the evidence of your successes clear.
Step 4: Increase goal belief by building buffers against failure.
Finally, know that you will encounter failures along the way. This is a part of the goal-setting process. Indeed, if you don’t fail at some point, then you probably are not setting your goals high enough. But, unfortunately, sometimes people interpret setbacks as evidence that they are unable to achieve their goals.
So how do highly successful people deal with the dejection, anxiety, and frustration without losing confidence in achieving goals? One solution is developing an action orientation. Action orientation refers to the ability to disengage from one’s negative or harmful emotions and to foster the emotions necessary for effective goal pursuit.
It is contrasted with state orientation, which refers to the tendency to ruminate on negative feelings, worries, or failures.
Take the example of someone who is denied a promotion at work. Someone with high state orientation might spend weeks feeling overwhelmed with anger and sadness and lose their drive to work hard. In contrast, someone high in action orientation would be more likely to actually increase their motivation and put in more effort after the setback.
There are two ways you can cultivate an action orientation.
Commit to achieving your goals and getting things done
People are more likely to adopt a state orientation rather than action orientation when they are unsure of their goals and how to achieve them – that is, when people have a “deficient intent.” The good news is that if you have done the previous steps of creating SMART goals, you’ve already started to tackle this issue.
But even with SMART goals, deficient intent can develop for a number of reasons. Take a moment to think about times that deficient intent got in the way of your goals. Perhaps you…
- felt obliged to pursue goals that were not personally important to you—perhaps tasks handed down from a boss or colleague.
- got distracted by tasks that felt urgent but were not very important – for example, immediately responding to all emails, constantly checking status updates.
- continually looked for more information to “tweak” your goals and subgoals rather than just pursuing them.
- relied on external cues—such as feedback from colleagues, awards, and formal deadlines—to determine which goals to pursue when.
Many of these tendencies might make you a people-pleaser and perfectionist, but they will turn off your action orientation and as a result, hinder your ability to achieve your long-term goals.
Thus, one solution to shift from state to action orientation is to commit to your goals and subgoals. Think again about when deficient intent got in the way of your goals. What changes to your workflow or mindset could counteract the deficient intent? Perhaps you could…
- Schedule when, where, and how you will work on your goals in advance. Can you set aside specific times to ignore other obligations like secondary goals, meetings, or email?
- Get support from others. Can you communicate with colleagues, friends, or family to identify how they can provide support and help you stay on track?
- Change your environment. For example, if colleagues or email constantly distract you, could you move to a quiet place or set up an email blocker during certain times?
- Schedule worry time. Can you set aside specific, limited time to worry about or tweak goals, to limit how much such thoughts are always over your head? When negative thoughts do arise, practice telling yourself “this serves no useful purpose right now” and return to your current task.
Another common state-oriented response to setbacks and fear is what psychologists call catastrophizing. Catastrophizing refers to imagining horrible future outcomes. For example, a businesswoman fearing that she will not secure funding for her startup might imagine that she did in fact fail to get funding, thus was unable to pay herself, thus could not pay her rent, thus got evicted from her apartment, and so on and so forth into horribleness.
Objectively, these fears are almost always overblown. But that doesn’t stop them from creeping into your head, causing panic, and overwhelming the belief that you can achieve your goals.
Luckily, practicing an action orientation can help you to counteract catastrophizing. Here are a few ideas:
- Plan how you would act in response to the worst outcomes possible. Instead of trying to suppress your fears, intentionally play them out in your head and imagine your response. What would it be like to live through the bad outcome? What specific behaviors could you do afterwards? Our businesswoman above, for example, could imagine seeking funding from another source, getting a part-time job to tide her over, or moving in with her old friend Jen.
- Focus on the opportunity. How could you get something positive out of failing? Perhaps the businesswoman above could ask for feedback on why her funding failed, in order to improve her next round of negotiations. Perhaps she could pursue alternative funding sources that are even better in the long-run.
- Consider what you would tell a friend. If you are struggling to generate helpful behaviors or see any opportunity in your feared failures, imagine that a friend is in your shoes. Would you recognize that their catastrophizing is overblown? What would you recommend they do? Then, try taking your own advice.
Remember that the goal is to shift your thinking from the state-oriented feelings of panic and helplessness to action oriented behaviors that you could perform. By becoming more action oriented, you help gain your sense of control and restore your belief that your goals are possible.
Recap on achieving goals through process of motivation
Maintaining the motivation needed to reach your big, long-term goals is hard. You lose motivation in part because it’s difficult to properly value long-term goals, and in part because it’s hard to see evidence of how your actions today matter in the long run.
So, to increase your goal value…
- Develop SMARTer goals. To ensure your goals are assessable and indeed valuable, set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timed
- Decrease delay discounting. Take a moment to enjoy a daydream about enjoying the future results of achieving your goals..
And to increase your belief that you can achieve your goals by compiling evidence…
- Create and reward subgoals. Creating and rewarding subgoals helps you track evidence of your progress and boost your achievement belief.
- Develop an action orientation. Developing an action orientation—that is practicing how to disengage from negative emotions and plan behaviors in response to setbacks—can help you gather evidence of your abilities and boost motivation in the face of failure.
This article was written by Psychology Compass, who is on a mission to help knowledge-workers reach their peak mental performance, in a measurable way, while relying on science.