Will Your Productivity Improve If You Set More Difficult Goals?

By Shane Snow October 10th, 2014

There are two main camps when it comes to goal-setting, and they love to argue.

The first says it’s better to set realistic goals because it’s more encouraging and rewarding to meet your goals than to stretch and risk failing. The other says to aim higher than you think you can achieve—something about shooting for the moon and hitting the stars if you miss. (To paraphrase.) Sometimes a third camp shows up, advocating to not set goals at all, but simply do one’s best.

Every group goal-setting meeting I’ve participated in at some point devolves into a debate along these lines. Circumstances vary, sure, but is there a right answer?

Scientists say there is.

A few years ago, researchers from University of Maryland and University of Toronto (Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, respectively) undertook a meta-analysis of decades of scientific research about the effectiveness of goals, and the difficulty thereof. They studied the performance outcomes of more than 40,000 goal-setters (and non goal-setters) in 100 different industries or tasks, from laboratory to real-world settings.

When Locke and Latham published their findings in American Psychologist, they wrote that not only did “specific, difficult goals consistently [lead] to higher performance than urging people to do their best,” but “the highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance.”

When encouraged to push their boundaries with specific, difficult goals, loggers cut more trees. Computer operators performed better—whether they came up with their own goals or someone else assigned them a goal. Engineers and scientists who set harder goals outperformed their counterparts.

Of course, some people are better at logging and computers and science than others. But when we eliminate the variation between people and compare workers to themselves, we find that hard goals make just about everyone do better across the board.

“In short, when people are asked to do their best, they do not do so,” Locke and Latham write. “This is because do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically. This allows for a wide range of acceptable performance levels, which is not the case when a goal level is specified. ”

Despite how much we might protest, tough goals indeed improve our performance, and for three reasons:

1. They direct our attention toward activities that matter, and away from distractions.

2. They energize us. “High goals lead to greater effort than low goals,” Locke and Latham argued. This goes for both physical and mental effort.

3. They increase our persistence. “Hard goals prolong effort,” they suggested. “Tight deadlines lead to a more rapid work pace than loose deadlines in the laboratory as well as in the field.”

These result in a couple of specific changes in our work strategies:

For low-level tasks, we go into trance-like autopilot:

“When confronted with task goals, people automatically use the knowledge and skills they have already acquired that are relevant to goal attainment,” L & L write. “For example, if the goal involves cutting logs, loggers use their knowledge of logging without the need for additional conscious planning in their choice to exert effort and persist until the goal is attained.”

For more difficult tasks, we increase our ingenuity:

“If the path to the goal is not a matter of using automatized skills, people draw from a repertoire of skills that they have used previously in related contexts, and they apply them to the present situation,” L & L write. “Truck drivers who were assigned the goal of increasing the weight of their truck loads made modifications to their trucks so that they could better estimate truck weight before driving to the weighing station.”

There’s a catch, however.

For shoot-for-the-stars style goal-setting to work, workers need two key things: feedback—so we know where we are regarding the goal, and self-efficacy—belief in our own competence. Without those two, any goal is nigh worthless from a statistical perspective.

In Smartcuts, I write about how, paradoxically, innovation history shows that it’s easier to build a big business than a small one. Part of the reason is because it’s easier to get key people (employees, investors, customers) excited about a big vision than a simple one. But the other part is big goals psychologically push us harder at a subconscious level than simply realistic ones.

“People with high goals produce more because they are dissatisfied with less,” L & L write. “The bar for their satisfaction is set at a high level. This is why they are motivated to do more than those with easy goals.”

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the point when big goals stop making us work hard, so long as we’re tracking our goals and believe in ourselves.

In other words, science has given us permission to dream bigger. That thing about hitting the stars, it turns out, is not as crazy as it sounds.

(This article, which has been slightly modified, was originally published on LinkedIn.)

Image by Frank Augstein
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