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The Psychology of Setting Motivating and Satisfying Goals

What science says about setting meaningful, internally motivating, and satisfying goals that are exciting but not overwhelming.

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It’s that time of year when we’re all thinking about what we’d like to accomplish in the New Year. 

Recently, there has been a push for setting goals for the New Year instead of daunting — probably doomed — resolutions. And while goals (intention setting toward a specific outcome) leave a bit more room for flexibility than black-and-white resolutions (a firm decision to do or not to do something), the pressure of accomplishing goals can loom over us as well, creating stress rather than excitement and motivation. The ideal goal is one that is motivating enough to light our fire without becoming stressful, realistic enough to have us believing in our ability to achieve it, and satisfying enough to leave us feeling fulfilled throughout the pursuit of the goal and after it has (or even hasn’t) been achieved. 

But, as anyone who has given up on a goal that went from enrapturing to anxiety-inducing too fast, or felt the anticlimax of reaching a goal that required a great deal of sacrifice to achieve can attest, this is not an easy balance to strike. The psychology undergirding the perfect goal-setting formula (i.e. motivating, satisfying, and meaningful) involves tuning into intrinsic motivations, realism, and present mindedness.

The Benefits and Perils of Goal Setting

Trail runner strides across mountain summit, sunrise.
Photo: Getty Images

Few will argue that goals aren’t a good and healthy thing to have. Setting goals, whether they be personal or professional, has been linked to higher self-motivation, confidence, empowerment, and autonomy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research has established a substantial connection between goal-setting and success. 

“A goal that is specific, measurable, realistic, and personally meaningful can help us keep on track and change (or maintain) our behaviors,” says Dr. Marina Milyavskaya, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and principal investigator of the university’s Goal Pursuit and Self-Regulation Lab. “Goals help keep us accountable, leading us to attain desired outcomes.” When set right, goals add purpose to our day-to-day actions by giving us energy, focus, and enjoyment.

Yet, some of us are probably familiar with the experience of having worked obsessively toward a long-term goal — maybe it was qualifying for a prestigious race, or hitting a PR, or earning a certain income — achieving it, and after the initial euphoria of the accomplishment fades, being left with a sense of dissatisfaction and melancholy, wondering “Now what?” 

The feeling that the achievement of a goal, when all is said and done, was actually rather anticlimactic is common among those who set high standards for themselves and have achieved those benchmarks. In fact, gold medal or not, many Olympians often experience post-Olympic depression after they return home to an ordinary life after years of working toward and achieving the highest degree of status in athleticism. This achievement “hamster wheel” is a phenomena that can leave us feeling like goals are ultimately futile and unsatisfying. Others have likely experienced the initial excitement over setting a big goal only to give up later because of the overwhelming pressure and accompanying stress of achieving it.  

As it turns out, the problem isn’t with having goals, but rather our own mentality toward goals and how we set, conceptualize, and approach them. 

What Makes a Goal Motivating and Satisfying?

Setting Self-Concordant Goals

Woman running on a high mountain pass.
Photo: Getty Images

According to Expectancy Theory, which has now been supported by dozens of studies,  motivation is the product of a) how much you personally value your goal and b) how high your belief is that you can realistically achieve your goals. The first part of the motivation equation is something that is highly individualized, and thus requires a good amount of self awareness. This is where mindfulness — the practice of developing a non-judgemental awareness of the present moment — may come into play.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggested that “mindful” individuals are better at setting the right goals for themselves. After surveying 800 undergraduate students, the research team found that students who scored higher in a mindfulness questionnaire were better at setting what psychologists refer to as self-concordant goals.

“The best goals are those that are personally relevant, meaningful, and enjoyable — also called self-concordant goals, or ‘want-to’ goals,” explains Dr. Milyavskaya, who was one of the researchers involved in the study. “These are the things that you personally want to do, not because of any pressure or feelings of obligation. Pursuing (and attaining) those types of goals typically make people feel more competent, agentic (like they are the authors of their lives), and connected to others.”

Because mindfulness can help us tune inward and become more aware of what we truly want and/or need, Dr. Milyavskaya’s research shows that it can help us set goals that align with our authentic selves. And if your goal has personal meaning and purpose, she says, you are less likely to feel that empty, unsatisfied feeling while pursuing it and once you have attained it. You are also less likely to feel stressed out over the goals that you set. 

“Overwhelming goals are often those that people feel pressured to pursue – either pressure from others, or from themselves because of guilt – they are something that people feel they should do rather than what they truly want to do,” says Dr. Milyavskaya “Such ‘should’ goals are the opposite of self-concordant goals, which are goals that we truly want to pursue. Such want-to goals are more likely to be motivating without being overwhelming.”

Set specific goals you believe you can achieve

The second part of the equation to setting motivating goals is to ensure that they are realistically attainable. People have a tendency to set  goals that aim a little too high, and while this may initially fire us up, it can quickly become overwhelming. Your goals don’t need to be scintillating plans for a radically different life. Research shows that goals that stay motivating over the long-term should strike a balance between being realistic enough not to discourage you or stress you out, and just slightly big enough to excite you. 

“Think: just-manageable challenge,” says Brad Stulberg, a performance coach and co-founder of the Growth Equation. “A 7 out of 10 where 10 is anxiety keeping you up at night and one is boredom and completely going through the notion.”

Rather than dreaming up the impossible (or, at least, extremely unlikely) and finding ourselves continually disappointed by the result and stressed out by the process, setting goals that are within a reasonable parameter we can work within are more motivating over the long term. Don’t think of these boundaries as a limitation, but a practice in strengthening the self-awareness that leads to setting more meaningful goals. 

Again, mindfulness can play a role here as it’s important to tune inward and think about what goal would fall within the boundaries of what you believe to be possible for yourself, while at the same time exciting and motivating for you.

“Just ask yourself: Where am I now? Where do I want to be? What is the next logical step?” advises Stulberg. “Most people who go through that reflection in earnest come up with the right kind of just-manageable challenge.”

After you’ve done this, it’s helpful to create a timeline of concrete and quantifiable bite-sized “process goals” that will allow you to hold yourself accountable. 

Research has found that having narrowly defined, specific, short-term process goals can help you clearly see the steps necessary for reaching long-term goals, thus boosting motivation. When we think of long-term goals, those tend to be product-goals such as breaking 3 hours in a marathon. A process goal to match that would be to run for at least an hour 6 days a week. Simply, they are the stepping stones along the way that get you to the larger end-goal. 

Prioritize experiences and relationships over achievements

Running along road at sunrise in Iceland
Photo: Getty Images

Many, even those who have achieved the highest benchmarks, end up feeling that reaching their goal is surprisingly hollow. That’s because people have a tendency to overestimate how happy a goal will make them after it’s been achieved. It’s so common it’s been given a name: the arrival fallacy. 

“Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness,” Tal Ben-Shahar, the Harvard-trained positive psychology expert who is credited with coining the term, told the New York Times in 2019.

It’s one reason why a disproportionate number of olympians and movie stars struggle with mental health issues after their greatest achievements. The reality is that, contrary to some deeply rooted American myths and values, success doesn’t equate to happiness. At least not for long. For people who set extreme goals for themselves, often the same stress and pressure to achieve another goal returns after the exhilarating rush of achievement passes. 

Some argue that the problem is in the way we conceptualize goals as a result-focused system rather than finding meaning in the process. When it comes to bigger long-term goals in particular, a majority of the time is spent in what can be called a “failure state” in which we are staking happiness and fulfillment in a future event (the achievement of a goal) that may only last a few moments. Plus, achievements sometimes come with unwanted consequences we may not be thinking about in the pursuit of a goal. (For example, you finally become a CEO but have no more time to spend with friends and family.) 

The irony is that setting goals make us happy, but achieving goals doesn’t promise lasting happiness. How do we navigate this paradox? First, it’s helpful to know what factors actually do lead to happiness. A great deal of research has shown that the number one predictor of happiness is high quality interpersonal relationships. New and diverse experiences, and feeling part of something larger than yourself (such as nature or a community) have also consistently been found to enhance happiness. To find more joy and meaning in the process of pursuing a goal, you might exchange or supplement quantitative goals (I will run 70 miles per week) with qualitative experiences, such as running in a new area once a week or joining a local running group. 

Second, savoring the whole process of chasing a goal is essential for not only maintaining motivation in the long-term pursuit of a goal but also for feeling satisfied after the goal has been reached. But how can we be sure that we’re going to enjoy the process leading up to a goal that we set for ourselves? Once again, mindfully looking inward is critical. 

“Before you take on a goal, visualize the process and how it makes you feel,” Stulberg recently told Time Magazine in a separate interview. “If you become tight and constricted, it’s probably not the right goal or time. If you feel open and curious, that’s a good sign.”

In reality, the process probably won’t uplift you 100 percent of the time. The daily routine can easily become mundane and unsatisfying without markers to show progress. To avoid getting in a rut, it’s important to pause and take time to celebrate and feel gratitude toward each small step you make along the way toward the bigger goal. For example, if it’s to break 40 minutes for the 10K, celebrate each time you complete a workout that would have been impossible for your former self to have completed. The self validation is motivating and makes the whole process satisfying. 

Go easy on yourself  

Male track athlete laying on track with hands covering his eyes looking disappointed.
Photo: Getty Images

One of the most common barriers to setting meaningful goals is perfectionism, a psychological ailment that has been increasing our success-obsessed culture. 

“Perfectionism can definitely be an obstacle to setting meaningful goals, because it often comes with the ‘shoulds’ – perfectionists often put a lot of pressure on themselves, so their goals are no longer ‘want-to’ goals,” says Dr. Milyavskaya. Runners are particularly vulnerable to falling into the trap of setting perfectionist standards for what performances are acceptable or worthy, for example raising the bar so high that even if they run their best time ever they end up disappointed because it fell short of what they thought they should be able to do. 

Dr. Milyavskaya notes, however, that there are two sides to perfectionism coin. One side is setting very high standards for oneself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The flip side is setting those standards because of perceived pressure from others, like a coach, and the self-criticism that follows if those high standards are not attained. 

“This is the little voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough if you have not met your lofty goal,” explains Dr. Milyavskaya. “These two aspects of perfectionism often go hand in hand, but it is the self-critical part that is truly toxic.” 

So, how can we get that nagging self-critic to pipe down? Dr. Milyavskaya says that practicing self-compassion is one way of combating that damaging self-criticism. She also recommends asking yourself what you would say to a friend who was in your position of having not met a goal. 

Look at the bigger picture 

Ultimately, it’s important to take a step back and recognize that achieving big, shiny goals is not what gives a life purpose nor what will make us happy and fulfilled. There is always a bigger goal, and always someone faster.

Know ahead of time that you never really arrive,” says Stulberg. “The goal-post is always 10 yards down the field. This is why it’s so important to think of the ultimate goal as becoming kinder, stronger, better, and wiser. You can always work toward that. Even winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games is still just a milestone toward that broader set of goals.”

The point of goal setting is to add excitement, connection, and meaning to the here and now. Tuning inward to find what creates that for you — not what someone else is chasing or thinks is best for you — can help you find both the goals and the processes that will motivate and satisfy you through this year.