Setting and pursuing goals

The key to remaining buoyant is ensuring that we know where we want to be and knowing how to get there. This can be achieved through the setting of personal goals. Goal setting and pursuit falls into the coordination factor of the 6Cs. Crucially, goal pursuit is re-enforced by habits.

Many people have some kind of goal; it might be a short-term goal, anything from a few hours or a few months, while some will be thinking further into the future. We might be thinking about redecorating the house or even moving to a larger home; we might be no further in our goal pursuit than selecting the wallpaper or browsing the homes in the estate agent's window. On the other hand, perhaps we're thinking about retirement or emigrating to Canada or New Zealand. Students have similar aspirations - getting a good result in an upcoming test, studying a subject at a higher level, career directions or increased confidence.

Whatever the goal, be it large or small, there exists a gap between what we want to achieve and where we are right now, a gap that requires filling with actions that help us to travel from goal formation to goal achievement. Of course, these goals mightn't be formal - they might simply be a desire for some time in the future, that is, goals that never really come to fruition and are dismissed as pipe dreams. We tend to assume that when we set goals we will pursue them with focus and attention, yet this isn't always the case. Indeed, some goals might not even be realistic and are, therefore, unobtainable, while realistic goals might be only half-heartedly formulated and never pursued with any real conviction. But if goals are to be realised then we need to formulate them in ways that make them achievable through personal effort, in addition, we need to know how they are to be realised and the stages we need to complete in order to nudge ever closer to our destination. It's not enough to know what we want, we have to choose our goals carefully, formulate a plan and stick to it, while developing habits that aid in our pursuit and adjust when our plans go off track.

What is a goal?

People tend to have a common sense understanding of what is meant by a goal and these common sense notions tend to be pretty accurate. Goals represent our future intentions or valued outcomes; they are something we want to achieve. We might have the desire, but without certain prerequisites our goals are unlikely to be realised. Edwin Locke, the American psychologist and pioneer of goal-setting theory, suggests that, for a person to be able to achieve their goal, they must:

  • • Be committed to the goal
  • • Have the requisite ability to attain it (and, if not, the first goal must be to acquire this ability)
  • • Be free from conflicting goals.
  • (Locke & Latham, 2006)

Behavioural economics

These early notions of goal setting have remained relatively stable over time, as well as being extended and tested in varying situations and with different groups of people. More recently, this knowledge has been incorporated into a relatively new area of study known as behavioural economics, a branch of economic theory that borrows elements from psychology to better understand how people make decisions. In the UK, behavioural economics has become progressively influential, with the establishment of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) by the UK coalition government in 2010. Often referred to as the 'nudge unit', the team work on a number of projects that include areas ranging from health to financial planning and education.

In regards their work in education, Owain Service and Rory Gallagher have identified several factors that make it much easier to pursue and achieve goals, factors that include setting the right goals, planning how to achieve them, committing to them, rewards, sharing goals with others and receiving feedback throughout the journey. These factors have been found to greatly increase the chances of people reaching their goals. For example, a trial of goal setting in UK further education colleges found that formal goal-setting sessions implemented in addition to subject-specific lessons greatly increased achievement in English and Maths (Service & Gallagher, 2017, pp. 13-15).

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