Goal setting: how to create a motivating goal

Austin & Vancouver (1996, p. 388) define goals as “internal representations of desired states”. Goals are a way of making sense of our behaviour and provide a mental guide of what constitutes an acceptable level of performance.

Google the word ‘goals’ and you will be inundated with articles about goal setting; tips and tools, facts and theories, SMART goals and healthy goals. There is also a wave of evidence for the perils of goal setting; the dangers and negative effects of setting non-concordant or extrinsic goals.

However, like it or not, humans are goal-focused organisms; we dream, we hope and we have a set of values that determines how we chose to act.

Goals and coaching

The concept of setting intrinsically motivating, self-concordant goals is an important and complex part of the coaching process.

This process is more than just setting SMART goals or asking the question “What would you like to achieve“? It involves unpacking the client’s values, needs and teasing out the layers of internal complexity characterised by anxiety and guilt; known as the ‘I should’ or ‘I ought to’ talk.

Funnelling down to uncover needs and values

In a3 coaching session, this process may involve ‘funnelling’ a broad goal into something more specific and tangible.

For example, a client’s initial goal of “going to the gym more” is not only vague, it also lacks vision, has no connection to deeper values and is void of personal motivation.

Funnelling can be used to probe deeper to uncover needs and values associated with this goal by asking the “So what?” question; “What are you really looking for?”, “What would be the difference if you did this?” and “What would that look like?”. 

In our current example, the client may reveal the desire to start going to the gym stems from the need to get fit, sleep better, have more energy to play with the kids, enjoy exercise, feel more confident or to fit into an old pair of jeans. It may also reveal the client’s core values of health, family, love and acceptance.

Expand and reframe the goal

By funnelling down the initial, simple goal we are able to start building intrinsic motivation – no longer is the desire to start going to the gym about an external pressure “I know I should be doing this“, it is now connected to core values and drivers linked to health, family and love.

A coach can expand on this by reframing the original goal with the client by using a phrase such as: “A strategy to do XXX which will be evidenced by YYY“.

In our gym example, this phrase may look something like:

“A strategy to increase my fitness and wellbeing in an enjoyable, sustainable manner, and this will be evidenced by my having increased levels of energy after work, sleep right through the night and be able to focus on my personal relationships (not work) on the weekend.” 

Have you ever struggled to stay on track with a personal or work goal? Perhaps you have experienced working towards an extrinsic, ‘I should‘ goal?  If so try funnelling your goal to uncover your values and reframe into an actionable phrase.