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People differ significantly in their ability to plan and look ahead. While some people have a clear vision, others wander through life aimlessly. Here,

we introduce the concept of goals, define different dimensions along which goals can be categorized, and explain the relationship between different types of goals and well-being.


Elliot and Fryer state, "A goal is a cognitive representation of a future object that the organism is committed to approach or avoid." Simply put, a goal is a mental image of a future scenario a person aims to achieve or avoid. Successful goal-striving is significantly related to subjective well-being. Furthermore, meta-analyses suggest that goal-setting interventions can help improve many behaviors, including learning, job search, and physical activity.

Goals affect performance via three fundamental mechanisms. First, plans help the individual focus. They direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities. Second, goals have an energizing function. Setting a goal creates a sense of urgency, motivating people to reduce the discrepancy between the current state and the desired goal state. In addition, plans can energize people because the self-confidence acquired by reaching them fuels their motivation to continue pursuing new goals. Third, goals increase learning. When people follow a dream, they gain new insights, gather novel information, and learn to apply new strategies.


Past research has shown that goals can be classified along many dimensions, as discussed in the following sections.


The first dimension along which goals can be classified is proximity. Proximity refers to the nearness of goals in time. While some goals can be accomplished relatively quickly, others require long-term investment and commitment. Generally, a distinction can be made between short-term goals and long-term goals.



Goals are typically categorized as either short-term or long-term. Short-term goals, referred to as "proximal goals" and "subgoals," can be attained soon.

An example of a short-term goal could be, "I will go to the gym this week." Short-term goals allow individuals to break down a long-term goal into smaller, achievable steps, stimulating more detailed planning than long-term goals.

Setting short-term goals has essential benefits. First, setting short-term goals increases persistence. Second, short-term goals facilitate the experience of self-confidence. Mentally "breaking down" a long-term goal into short-term goals makes it appear more manageable. This, in turn, can enhance the perception that one can perform it effectively.

Moreover, successes are more likely because short-term goals are typically easier to accomplish than long-term ones. By successfully reaching a short-term goal, people become more confident in completing the long-term goal. This process can turn into a positive, upward spiral in which the individual gradually moves closer to the long-term goal and builds self-confidence.



Long-term or distal goals are goals one envisions for the distant future. Long-term goals cannot be accomplished today, tomorrow, or even in weeks or months. Examples of long-term goals include "getting a master's degree," "living healthier," or "running a marathon."


Compared to short-term goals, these goals are more abstract and less specifically defined. Consequently, they allow for greater flexibility in developing action-planning strategies. Moreover, because distal goals often concern "the bigger picture," they can be more motivating than short-term goals. Setting only short-term goals without a clear, overarching long-term goal is thus likely to result in a lack of commitment. At the same time, however, setting only long-term goals is unlikely to promote self-confidence. Long-term plans are more abstract and relatively far removed in time; therefore, monitoring the progress toward them is difficult. Consequently, when short-term goals do not accompany long-term goals, the individual may lack the "small success" experiences of short-term goals and may fail to build confidence regarding goal attainment. The combination of both distal and proximal goals enhances strategy development and better long-term performance.




The second dimension that can be used to classify goals is action orientation. While some plans trigger action to move towards them, others motivate action to move away from them. This distinction is referred to as approach versus avoidance goals.



Approach goals are generally focused on moving towards a positive outcome. Examples include "enjoying a fulfilling balance between work demands and personal relaxation" and "exercising more." Having a more significant number of approach goals as opposed to avoidance goals is related to higher levels of well-being. Approach goals are also associated with higher levels of academic performance, and they tend to be more effective at motivating performance than avoidance goals.


Why do some people tend to set approaches rather than avoidance goals? Personality factors may partly explain interpersonal differences in an overall approach versus avoidance orientation. For example, individuals high in approach temperament, need for achievement, and need for affiliation typically adopt approach goals. In contrast, those high in avoidance temperament, fear of failure, and fear of rejection naturally assume avoidance goals.





Avoidance goals are expressed as a movement away from an undesirable state. People who adopt an avoidance orientation focus on avoiding failure and other adverse outcomes. For example, a person may strive "to eat less unhealthy" or "to experience less stress at work."


Avoidance goals are generally associated with adverse outcomes and poor well-being


Not all goals have the same purpose. According to Dweck, goals can serve the purpose of developing or acquiring an attribute, such as a specific task, skill, or knowledge. Alternatively, plans can validate personal characteristics, such as ability, and seek positive evaluations of those attributes from others. This distinction has been referred to as learning goals versus performance goals.


Learning goals, also referred to as mastery goals, are those individuals strive to gain competence in a given activity to understand something new or increase their understanding. Examples include "learning to speak Spanish" or "improving computer programming skills." People with learning goals have different reactions to obstacles and problems. Instead of attributing failure to a lack of ability, they attribute it to insufficient effort or an ineffective strategy. Rather than perceiving setbacks as threats to be endured, they view them as challenges to be mastered. Moreover, learning goals are generally associated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation, which is, in turn, associated with optimal performance. Furthermore, learning goals are related to diverse positive processes, including more excellent absorption in actual task performance, increased perception of a complex task as a positive challenge rather than a threat, and enhanced memory and well-being.


Performance goals are goals people strive to attain to gain competence in a task either to obtain favorable judgments or to avoid negative judgments from others. An example of a performance goal could be "getting a high grade for next week's exam." On the positive side, performance goals can be very motivating, especially when an individual experiences success early in the goal-attainment process. In addition, research by Elliott and Dweck  showed that people who set performance goals and believe their ability is high actively sought opportunities to demonstrate this competence and did not shy away from challenging tasks.

However, research has also shown that performance goals can hurt performance. People with performance goals respond poorly to obstacles and setbacks. Poor performance is typically perceived as an indication that they lack ability, causing them to disengage from the task and quit. Performance goals can also induce cheating behavior and reluctance to cooperate with peers in highly competitive or critical situations in terms of outcome.


Goal specificity is another essential characteristic of goals. Specific goals have a clearly defined end-state. Examples include losing five pounds, earning $500, and running 2 miles. In contrast, nonspecific goals are ambiguous or diffuse in the exact performance level required to achieve them. Nonspecific plans include losing weight, earning money, and becoming healthy. Perhaps the most common type of nonspecific goal is the "do your best" goal, where the end state lacks entirely.

Research shows that setting nonspecific versus specific goals has different consequences. On the positive side, studies show that nonspecific goals are perceived as less complicated and more attainable than particular goals [40], encouraging people to adopt them more readily. In addition, compared to specific goals, nonspecific goals are also less likely to generate feelings of failure and thereby reduce goal abandonment.


Conversely, people tend to feel less committed to nonspecific goals. This makes nonspecific goals more likely to be revised, creates more significant variability in performance outcomes, and potentially leads to worse performance overall.


To explain the negative consequences of nonspecific goals, scholars have argued that the absence of a specific end state makes it difficult to evaluate performance accurately. Because the end state is defined less precisely, a more extensive range of outcomes indicates whether the goal is achieved successfully. For example, when the goal is to earn $500, only that particular outcome would demonstrate successful goal attainment. In contrast, multiple results would indicate success when the goal is to earn money.


Goals differ depending on the duration of involvement that is needed to achieve. Generally, a distinction can be made between end-state and process goals. End-state goals are also referred to as outcome goals. These are goals that, once achieved, do not require additional action. An example of an end-state goal is publishing an article. Once the goal of publishing an essay is accomplished, the author does not need to spend any more time on this goal, and they can move on to pursue another goal. End-state goals thus represent a one-off or momentary change. Process goals, on the other hand, are goals that require continuous action. An example of a process goal is staying healthy. To reach this goal, an individual must continue performing specific activities, such as eating healthily daily and going to the gym twice a week. Thus, process goals involve long-lasting change. Process goals can be conceptualized as standards that should be maintained, such as working hard, maintaining a certain body weight, and being kind to others.


Some goals exist in a hierarchical form. Within the hierarchy, the overall plan can have several subgoals that aid or are required to attain the overall goal. For example, completing an outline (subgoal) moves one closer to achieving an article (overall goal). Subgoals are thus smaller steps toward the achievement of an overarching goal. Depending on the complexity and scope of the comprehensive plan, subgoals can also have subgoals, referred to as sub-sub goals. In the earlier example of writing an article, the sub-subgoal of completing an outline could be reading about how to create an article outline. When the magnitude of the overall goal increases, the number of sub-goals and the complexity of the hierarchical goal structure increase as well, rather than a linear approach, where a goal has to be completed before one can proceed with the next destination, hierarchical goal structures allow for a similar way of working toward the overall plan. They will enable the individual to switch between working on different subgoals and thus create more freedom during the goal-striving process.

Structuring the pursuit of an overall goal into a set of sub-goals has several benefits. First, research shows that creating subgoals reduces the quest's difficulty and provides positive reinforcements that lead to greater motivation and persistence. For example, an individual whose overall goal is to write an article might be more motivated to work on the paper when this goal is broken down into five sub-goals because this seems more easily achievable and motivating than the overall goal of writing 30 pages, which seems excessively difficult and, hence, discourages goal engagement. This positive effect of subgoals is particularly relevant for individuals who have difficulty summoning motivation in the beginning stages of pursuing a significant goal, a phenomenon labeled "the starting problem. Researchers believe that one of the main benefits of dividing a goal into subgoals is that breaking a large, daunting task into smaller, relatively more manageable, and more proximal tasks can promote goal initiation and persistence. For example, Heath, Larrick, and Wu found that people believe a runner who sets a goal to run 1000 miles over three months is more likely to persist in the early stages of goal pursuit when the runner thinks of the goal in terms of running 11 miles a day rather than in terms of running 330 miles a month. Similarly, in an article titled "Small Wins," Weick argued that significant social problems are too enormous and overwhelming to tackle without breaking them down into more minor issues that are easier to control.

Second, subgoals can help monitor goal progress. Because subgoals are subordinate endpoints in pursuing an overall goal, once reached, they inform the individual about the progress toward the comprehensive plan, especially when the overall gain is uncertain.


Third, because sub-goals are easier and quicker to accomplish than the overall goal, they provide a greater sense of progress. This sense of progress can enhance self-efficacy and competence, leading to more remarkable persistence and motivation.


It is essential to note the potential negative consequences attached to forming subgoals. The achievement of sub-goals can lead to self-congratulation and encourage relaxation, thereby interfering with the progression toward and attaining the overall goal. In the example above, completing an outline may result in feelings of achievement and generate the idea that one has "deserved" some time off.

Resources and Additional Readings

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Anderman, E. M., Austin, C. C.; & Johnson, D. M. (2002). The Development of goal orientation. In A. Wigfield, & J.S. Eccles (Eds.) In Development of achievement motivation. A volume in the educational psychology series, (pp. 197-220). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


Bandura, A. (1997). The anatomy of stages of change. American Journal of Health Promotion: AJHP, 12, 8-10.


Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-eficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586–598.


Borrelli, B., & Mermelstein, R. (1994). Goal setting and behavior change in a smoking cessation program. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 18, 69-83.


Brunstein, J. C. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1061-1070.


Brunstein, J. C. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1061–1070.


Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1982). Control theory: A useful conceptual framework for personality–social, clinical, and health psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 111-135.


Daniels, L. M., Haynes, T. L., Stupnisky, R. H., Perry, R. P., Newall, N., & Pekrun, R. (2008). Individual differences in achievement goals: A longitudinal study of cognitive, emotional, and achievement outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33, 584–608.


Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048.


Dweck, C. S. (1999). Essays in social psychology. Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and Development. Psychology Press.


Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.


Earley, P. C., & Perry, B. C. (1987). Work plan availability and performance: An assessment of task strategy priming on subsequent task completion. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 39, 279-302.


Elliot, A. J. (2006). A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 111–116.


Elliot, A. J., & Church, M. A. (1997). A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 218.

Elliot, A. J., & Fryer, J. W. (2008). The goal concept in psychology. In J. Shah & W. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivational science (pp. 235–250). NewYork: Guilford Press.


Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 × 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 501-519.


Elliot, A. J., & Sheldon, K. M. (1997). Avoidance achievement motivation: a personal goals analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 171-185.


Elliot, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2002). Approach-avoidance motivation in personality: Approach and avoidance temperaments and goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 804–818.


Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5-12.


Emmons, R. A., & Kaiser, H. A. (1996). Goal orientation and emotional well-being: Linking goals and affect through the self. In L. L. Martin & A. Tesser (Eds.), Striving and feeling: Interactions among goals, affect, and self-regulation (p. 79–98). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


Fishbach, A., Dhar, R., & Zhang, Y. (2006). Subgoals as substitutes or complements: The role of goal accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 232–242.


Frese, M., & Zapf, D. (1994). Action as the core of work psychology: A German approach. Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 4, 271-340.


Gable, S. L. (2006). Approach and avoidance of social motives and goals. Journal of Personality, 74, 175-222.


Heath, C., Larrick, R. P., & Wu, G. (1999). Goals as reference points. Cognitive psychology, 38, 79-109.


Heyman, G. D., & Dweck, C. S. (1992). Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: Their relation and their role in adaptive motivation. Motivation and emotion, 16, 231-247.

Hollenbeck, J. R., & Klein, H. J. (1987). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Problems, prospects, and proposals for future research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 212-220.


Hollenbeck, J. R., & Klein, H. J. (1987). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Problems, prospects, and proposals for future research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 212-220.


Khan, M. S., & Quaddus, M. (2004). Group decision support using fuzzy cognitive maps for causal reasoning. Group Decision and Negotiation, 13, 463-480.


Kirschenbaum, D. S., Humphrey, L. L., & Malett, S. D. (1981). Specificity of planning in adult self-control: an applied investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 941-950.


Klein, H. J., Whitener, E. M., & Ilgen, D. R. (1990). The role of goal specificity in the goal-setting process. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 179-193.


Klug, H. J., & Maier, G. W. (2015). Linking goal progress and subjective well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16, 37-65.


Kruglanski, A. W., Shah, J. Y., Fishbach, A., Friedman, R., Chun, W. Y., & Sleeth-Keppler, D. (2002). A theory of goal systems. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 34 (p. 331–378). Academic Press.


Latham, G. P., & Seijts, G. H. (1999). The effects of proximal and distal goals on performance on a moderately complex task. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 20, 421-429.


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Linnenbrink, E. A., Ryan, A. M., & Pintrich, P. R. (1999). The role of goals and affect in working memory functioning. Learning and Individual Differences, 11, 213-230.


Liu, S., Huang, J. L., & Wang, M. (2014). Effectiveness of job search interventions: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 1009-1041.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Locke, E. A., Chah, D. O., Harrison, S., & Lustgarten, N. (1989). Separating the effects of goal specificity from goal level. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 43, 270-287.


Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological bulletin, 90, 125-152.


Manderlink, G., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1984). Proximal versus distal goal setting and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 918-928.


McEwan, D., Harden, S. M., Zumbo, B. D., Sylvester, B. D., Kaulius, M., Ruissen, G. R., ... & Beauchamp, M. R. (2016). The effectiveness of multi-component goal setting interventions for changing physical activity behaviour: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Health psychology review, 10, 67-88.


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