The science behind setting goals—and achieving them

December 2023

The science behind setting goals might not be something you think about when you sit and jot down your New Year’s resolutions or quarterly goals. But there is a lot of science behind setting—and achieving—goals.

A mix of psychology and neuroscience, setting goals helps build personal, professional, and academic motivation. When you set goals, you give yourself a roadmap of where you’re going and the directions you need to follow to reach your destination.

Let’s explore the ins and outs of goal setting and what role science plays.

What is goal setting?

Goal setting looks different for every person. But at its core, goal setting is the process of developing a plan designed to motivate you to achieve a specific goal or set of goals. People set goals to help them with everything from their health and wellness to professional development, personal relationships, and beyond. There are a variety of ways to set goals. Two of the most common goal-setting methods are the ABCs of goals popularized by Frank L. Smoll in the 1970s and George T. Doran’s brainchild, S.M.A.R.T. goals, which date back to the early 1980s.

ABCs of goals

The ABCs of goals focus on three essential features of goal-setting. 

  • Achievable: Your goal should be achievable and also challenging.
  • Believable: You must believe in your capacity to reach your goal.
  • Committed: You must be committed to reaching your goal.

Smoll’s research looked closely at athletes and how the ABCs of goals could help them reach their peak performance. But the same theory has been used for people in all kinds of professions and avenues of life.

After the ABCs of goals, S.M.A.R.T goals came along about a decade later and added more criteria to increase the effectiveness of goal setting.

S.M.A.R.T. goals

S.M.A.R.T. goals are more likely to be achieved because they meet the following criteria. 

  • Specific: Your goal should be specific and narrow to help you plan effectively. “Go for a 30-minute walk every day” versus “I want to get in shape.”
  • Measurable: Your goal and the progress you make should be measurable. “Run 5 km in 30 minutes” versus “Run faster.”
  • Attainable: You should be able to accomplish your goal in an established time frame. “Run a marathon in a week” versus “Train for and run a marathon in six months.”
  • Realistic: Your goal should align with your values, objectives, and lifestyle. “Run 5 km in five minutes today” versus “Spend 4 weeks doing a couch to 5 km program.”
  • Timely: Your goal should be kept to a realistic yet ambitious timeline. “I will run 5 km this year” versus “I will run 5 km by May 1st.”

S.M.A.R.T. goals have been used for over 40 years. And there’s a reason for that. When your goals are designed to help you reach them, you are more likely to reach your goals and set new ones. 

And S.M.A.R.T. goals do just that. A 2022 study found that setting SMART goals helped type 2 diabetics lower their A1c levels (glycated hemoglobin levels). Another study discovered that SMART goals can help people implement lifestyle medicine prescriptions, including diet and exercise changes.

The benefits of goal setting

There is a wide array of benefits that you can experience from setting goals. While the benefits of achieving your specific goals will be clear, the act of setting goals offers a few advantages. 

Setting goals gives you direction

Think of your goals as a roadmap to where you want to be. They provide the direction you need from point A to point B. If you set short- and long-term goals, you’ll always have a target and a general idea of how to get there.

Goals create clear expectations for you to work towards

When you set goals for yourself, both personally and professionally, you’ll know exactly what you expect from yourself. And if you share these goals with others—your manager or partner, for example—they will also understand what is expected of you and be able to help you achieve your goals. 

Setting goals can help you determine your priorities

For most people, a lot is going on in their lives. From work and family to friends and hobbies, there is a lot for most people to juggle. The reality for many people is that some things are priorities, and others must take a back seat. It can be challenging to figure out which is which, but setting goals helps determine which activities to prioritize. 

The psychology of setting goals

Psychology is the study of the mind and its functions, particularly as it relates to behaviour. So, it should come as no surprise that setting goals is a psychological exercise. You select an objective you want to achieve, set a timeframe to reach said objective, and create a plan. Your goal and how you complete it all relate to your mind and the subsequent behaviours you use to reach your goal. 

Psychologists have studied goal setting and what makes some goals more achievable than others for a long time. Both the ABCs of goals and S.M.A.R.T. goals are based on psychological theory. 

Another branch of psychology that deals with goal setting is behavioural economics. A mix of psychology and economics, behavioural economics aims to understand how and why people behave the way they do. It examines how people make decisions and considers that people do not always make the “rational” choice even when they have everything they need to do so.

But goal setting is more than psychological—physiological elements also play a role in goal setting.

How neuroscience plays a role in goal setting

While goal setting has long been seen as an area of psychological study, researchers have recently started to examine how goal setting is understood from a neuroscientific perspective.

It turns out that goal setting has an impact on your brain in a very significant way.

Goal setting restructures your brain to help make it more effective. And it all has to do with your emotions! Your amygdala—the part of your brain responsible for creating emotion—evaluates how important your goals are to you.

Your frontal lobe—the part of your brain responsible for problem-solving—outlines each goal’s specifics. Then, the amygdala and frontal lobe work together to keep you focused on your goal.

Your brain helps lead you toward behaviours that support achieving your goals while helping you ignore behaviours and situations that deter you from your goals.

How to set goals and how to achieve your goals

Now that you understand how science is helping you achieve your goals, how can you use this to your advantage to set achievable goals?

You can adopt a goal-setting framework like the ABCs of goals or S.M.A.R.T. goals to help you set goals designed to be achievable. Staying motivated long-term to keep moving toward your goals is also essential. Here are four tips to help you stay motivated:

  • Have a “why” that matters to you. Your why should be personal to you and elicit an emotional response when you think about it.
  • Find ways to incorporate the behaviours that will help you reach your goals into your daily life. 
  • Look for ways to stay accountable. This could be an accountability buddy who walks with you or an online forum you check in with regularly.
  • Give yourself rewards when you reach your specific goals. If you have short-term goals that lead to a long-term goal, this is a great way to stay motivated to get to each goal. 

Once you understand how science plays a role in goal setting, you can start to set goals designed to be achieved. When you reach a goal, you are more likely to set and achieve more goals, too! 

Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.

Other resources you may be interested in:

  • S1E5: The power and science of building healthy habits (podcast)

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