• Claire Higgins

How to Set & Achieve Positive Goals

There is both an art and science to setting and achieving goals. For a long time, scientists have been exploring why and how people set goals, and what it is that really drives them toward goal fulfilment - or prevents them from following through.

In Attainment Goal Theory (AGT), goals are defined in two ways: (1) performance or ego-based goals; (2) mastery or task based goals. The former focuses on outcomes while the latter is more about the process of achieving goals (Nicholls, 1989).

When it comes to achieving goals, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. If relevant competency is high, and a person is self-motivated, then a performance-based goal may be easier to achieve compared to the absence of competence and self-motivation.

For example, a gym enthusiast who has learned how to use the equipment in the gym and is committed to his or her exercise goals may find it easier to follow through on fitness and gym-related goals while someone who is a beginner may struggle.

But skills-based competency and an inner drive to achieve - or the discipline to show up - aren't the only components of achieving goals. A person also needs to know if their goals are a reflection of who they currently are and what they truly want.

Coaching Yourself and Others on Goals

The coaching profession encourages insight, skills, and goals. Whether you're an exercise or sports coach, executive or life coach, or another kind of coach, you'll likely be helping somebody to get from "A" to "B" with the fewest detours along the way.

Imparting relevant skills through knowledge transfer and practice is popular in exercise and sports coaching, while creating space for self-awareness is common practice in executive and life coaching. Both methods contribute to achieving goals.

Goals can motivate us. Setting the right goals, however, can be less obvious the further from exercise and sport a coach deviates. In executive and life settings, the parameters for success are much broader and often more nuanced and complex.

Positive Psychology offers a scientific approach to setting goals while encouraging the personal reflection that authentic or positive goals require. When we better understand ourselves, we can see if and how our goals align with who we really are.

For example, if our top strengths and values include humour, working in a serious environment where humour is not valued may limit our enjoyment and progress towards a work-related goal. Conversely, if humour is welcome, we may thrive.

Is it always that simple?

The short answer is no. Understanding our strengths and values is just a starting point. How we apply them and and how much of them we apply is also relevant. Take a curious person, for example. There could be a tipping point for when curiosity goes too far.

People can also struggle with accepting their personal strengths. For example, someone who is naturally creative and spiritual may reject these parts of themselves because the environment around them does not value or encourage them.

This person could spend years trying to fit into work places that demand other strengths such as leadership and zest, or high energy. Yet their natural tendency may be to be sensitive, spiritual, and creative rather than robust, dynamic, and motivating.

Several things could happen to this person over time. They may come to appreciate these lesser strengths and reach a level of competency required by the job. Other needs may be fulfilled alongside this, such as social connection or validation.

The person could also feel like a square peg in a round hole. No matter how hard they try they feel restless and inauthentic. Work becomes mentally and physically draining and over time, they lose touch with a precious part of themselves.

The Argument Against Goals

While setting goals can help us to get clear on our direction in life, work, exercise, or sport, sometimes goals can hinder our progress. In the pursuit of a particular goal, our goal posts may shift or we may realise that we don't really want the goal at all.

This is often the case when we set big goals that take time to achieve and require a journey to get there. For example, someone decides on a career change. They have their heart set on retraining as an architect but then something changes along the way.

The person may discover a love for ancient buildings during a random lecture. This leads to a further interest in archaeology. Before they know it, their bigger goal of becoming an architect is in jeopardy and internally, they suddenly feel stuck.

This kind of "stuckness" arrives when we become attached to certain goal outcomes. Instead of allowing ourselves to enjoy and be changed by the process, we may cling to a an imaginary identity that serves a particular need or part of our self-worth.

It could be that we have told our social network that we are going to become an architect. This may have led us to be seen in a certain way and feel socially validated or admired. Letting go of people's perceived impressions of us can be pretty hard.

The Argument For Setting Goals

When we set goals that reflect and enhance who we naturally are the path to their attainment can feel smoother. Instead of fighting against a current we find we can go with the flow. We may even find ourselves expanding beyond the actual goal.

For example, the creative person mentioned earlier may decide to take up painting or pottery outside of work. The more they engage in this "goal" the more they might discover like-minded people and deepen their creative drive.

Over time, the positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001) generated by their expressing this part of themselves may carry over into their work. Instead of leaving their job, they may find a way to bring creativity into their leadership style.

At the same time, setting goals that are much harder to attain such as those that require perseverance may become catalysts for strengthening other parts of ourselves. We shouldn't shy away from these types of goals but we do need to treat them wisely.

Whether you choose to set goals or not, or encourage others to do so, understanding why you are motivated to do what you do each day can make a difference to how you feel and where you eventually end up in life, work, exercise, or sport.


Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). 'The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.' American Psychologist, Vol 56(3), Mar 2001, 218-226

Nicholls, N. (1984). Concepts of ability and achievement motivation. In C. Ames & R. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education: Student motivation, 1, pp. 39-73. New York: Academic Press.

Further Reading

Are You Impelled or Compelled?

Motivation, Hope & Fear in Athletes, Coaches & Executives

The Concept of Strengths in Positive Psychology

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Would you like to study Positive Psychology online? Inner Athletics has recently partnered with the Positive Psychology Network on a UK Level 5 Diploma in Positive Psychology Practice & Coaching. For more information please click here.

Or are you looking for online professional coaching support in exercise, sport, life, or work? We offer evidence-based coaching on performance obstacles, stress management, recovery from setbacks, and wellbeing. For more information please click here.

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