It wouldn’t be a New Year without a plethora of articles helping us sort out our goals for the next twelve months. Are we setting our goalsSMART enough? Are they big, hairy, and audacious (BHAG) goals? Are we telling all of our friends?

Goals are supposed to help us achieve great things. Research around goals demonstrates that they work. Outcomes are improved when we set goals, focus on them, and ultimately achieve them – including in sports.

There are hundreds of experiments, involving thousands of participants from continents and countries spanning most of the world pointing to one clear finding: compared to vague, easy goals such as “Do your best”, specific, and aspirational goals improve performance. The goal ‘gurus’, Locke and Latham reviewed over 40 years of research to state: “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.”

In other words, if you really want it, set it hard and work for it and you’ll achieve it.

But goals are not always beneficial. There are times when our rigid adherence to a (sporting) goal leads to unwise decisions, such as persisting with training in spite of injury so we can ‘tick the box’ or get to a certain race. While empirical evidence does not specifically link goals to cheating in sport, there are countless anecdotes to be found, consistent with evidence that goals are linked with unethical behaviour. Goals can lead to imbalanced decisions where focus and attention are only paid to what is being measured. This can mean that things that are not being measured may be neglected (like family or spouse/partner focus). And in spite of Locke and Latham’s ideals, goals set too hard can reduce our feelings of self-control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.

What are your goals for 2015?

Does this mean we are better off without goals? Should we ditch the desire for 2015 and simply go with the flow?

Depending on your source, around 45% of us create New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, more than 75% of those who are resolute on January 1 fail to stick with their goals.

In my previous articles for Cycling Tips, I have described how our passion for cycling can be either harmonious or obsessive. The type of passion we have relates to the types of goals we pursue: achievement goals or mastery goals. With this in mind, I am going to suggest that on balance, the research does support setting goals – so long as we set the right kinds of goals. My tips for goal setting are below, and they’re not your typical goal-setting list.

7 components of goals that work.

First, only set one or two goals. Too many goals leads to confusion and imbalance. Ultimately we achieve less, not more, when we have too many goals. (See this post for more.)

Second, your goals really need to align to your life values. That might sound too deep (or just plain airy-fairy) for a cycling blog, yet the reality is that if our cycling goals are in conflict with our other goals, one or the other will suffer. (See the two-and-a-quarter rule here.)

Third, goals need to be specific, and we should keep goals focused on process, learning, and mastery rather than on performance or ego. You will be more able to gauge progress by emphasising improvement on your VO2 Max, or best time up a favourite climb than whether you can win your grade in the Grafton, or simply beat your buddy in a local crit. His ‘off’ day doesn’t mean you’re improving. There are too many variables when your goals involve other people.

Fourth, as much as you can, set your own goals – autonomously. When we simply take on goals because the coach (or the boss) tells us to, the outcomes are generally sub-optimal.

Fifth, chunk the goals down to small, achievable steps. It’s dispiriting when we work hard to achieve something big but never really get there. Focus on the next step and ask yourself, “What can I do next?” Then, as you reach small milestones, celebrate them! (Every time you recognise yourself progressing, your brain will give you a neurotransmitter rush that makes you feel great – and boosts your motivation to persist.)

Sixth, flexibility is everything. As we progress towards a goal, plans can change. New circumstances can alter our capacity. When this happens, focus on continued progress, learning, and mastery, even if it is not in the direction anticipated. What this really means is that your goals should be living, breathing organisms. When you have wins, your goals should be revised. When you have losses and failures, same goes. Sometimes goals should be increased. Sometimes they should be abandoned. Our values should dictate.

Last, expect to fail. You will. Most people who have achieved something great have failed over and over again before finally nailing it.

Goals are neither good or bad. Rather, the way we set them, and the way we respond to our inability to achieve them is what matters. A flexible approach that emphasises learning and personal growth will see us achieving more all year long than we’d imagined on January 1.

For those who are interested in learning more about how goals can go wrong, see Goals Gone Wild from the Harvard Business School.

About the author

Dr Justin Coulson speaks to professionals and parents about positivity – at work, at home, in life. He and his wife are the parents of six children. He rides less than he used to – and he’s finally ok with that. You can read more of his work at his website and you can connect with him on Facebook and on Twitter.