The Science of Goal-Setting: The 5 Principles You Need to Know

In the late 1960s, Dr. Edwin Locke’s groundbreaking research on goal setting and motivation formed our modern understanding of what makes goals effective.

In his 1968 article ”Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives” (1), he showed that specific goals and appropriate feedback motivate and improve the performance of employees.

His research showed that the more specific and difficult a goal is, the harder people tend to work on achieving it.

Goal-Setting Research

Locke later reviewed a decade’s worth of laboratory experiments and field studies on the effects of goal setting on performance (2). He found that 90% of the time, specific and challenging (unless too challenging) goals led to higher performance than easy or ”do your best” goals.

Telling someone to ’try hard’ or ’do their best’ is far less effective than giving them a specific metric to measure their performance against such as ’concentrate on beating your best time’ or ’try to get at least 90% correct’.

Also, having goals that are too easy is demotivating. Hard goals are better because they give a greater sense of accomplishment once they’re completed. We all know that great feeling that comes from getting something for which you have worked hard.

A couple of years after Locke published this article, Dr Gary Latham found support for his findings while studying the effects of goal setting in the workplace.

The Science of Goal-Setting: The 5 Principles

In 1990 Locke and Latham went on to publish ’A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance’ (3) together in which they outlined five characteristics you need to consider if you want to achieve your goal. These are:

1. Clarity
If your goal isn’t clear and specific you won’t even know if you’ve achieved it. That’s why general instructions such as ’do your best’ are ineffective. If you think about it, how can you possibly know what is ’your best’ actually? An effective goal gives you something very specific to measure and let’s you know what behaviours to reward.

—> Write down the metrics you’ll use to measure your progress. Be crystal clear about what has to be achieved for your effort to be considered a success.

2. Challenge
The goal needs to be challenging. Goals that are too easy aren’t motivating because they don’t feel important. Goals that are difficult to achieve feel significant so you work harder to achieve them.

—> Ask yourself if your goal sparks your interest? Does it feel challenging, yet possible to achieve? If it isn’t exciting, try aiming higher. If it seems so hard you feel discouraged, aim a little lower.

3. Commitment
People perform better when they are committed to achieving certain goals. This means it has to be something you really want to do.

—> Did you choose the goal yourself? Is the goal actually important to you? Is someone holding you accountable in reaching the goal? If your answer to any of these questions is ’no’, make sure to adjust the goal until it’s a ’yes’.

4. Feedback
In addition to selecting the right goal, you should also listen to feedback in order to determine how well you’re doing. This allows you to adjust the goal and your approach in reaching it. Feedback doesn’t necessarily have to come from other people. You can also measure your own progress.

5. Complexity
Highly complex tasks can quickly become overwhelming. If you start to feel stressed out about your goals, they are probably too complex or unrealistic.

In Summary…

The next time you set a goal, make sure you include all the necessary ingredients for effective goal setting:

1. Clarity: Make it specific and measurable.

2. Challenge: Make it challenging enough to spark interest without being too hard.

3. Commitment: Make sure it’s something you truly want to do and believe you can achieve. Get some accountability.

4. Feedback: Measure your daily progress. Do a weekly review and adjust your approach.

5. Complexity: If necessary break your goals down or lower the difficulty of the goal. Enlist the help of others.

Get these elements right and you’ll dramatically increase the chances of accomplishing your aims.

”What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
– Henry David Thoreau


  1. Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives
  2. Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980
  3. A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance