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The trick to effective goal setting? Make it about the journey

The trick to effective goal setting? Make it about the journey

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”– Arthur Ashe

When it comes to goal setting, we often have a laser-like focus on what we think the end goal will look like. We may even have some ideas in mind about what steps we need to take to get there and what we’re going to do once we finally achieve this goal.

However, the biggest mistake a person can make when setting goals is focusing on the destination rather than the journey. Let’s take a closer look at why…

The issue with focussing on the destination

Typically, when we achieve our desired goal, we slowly stop performing the behaviours that got us there in the first place so we can turn our attentions to other goals. However, research highlights that disengaging from these behaviours can actually have a detrimental impact in the long term. Not only were these behaviours helpful when it came to achieving a goal, they were beneficial in their own right.

For example, let’s say someone wants to lose 10 pounds of weight. To achieve this, they start exercising regularly and adopt a healthy diet until they reach their desired weight. If they start exercising less and making less efforts with their diet once they achieve that goal, they will struggle to sustain this new weight loss. This type of thinking is a trap that many people fall into when achieving their goals – they view the behaviours that got them there as a means to an end.

Goal setting as a path

When it comes to goal setting, people often use the metaphor of a path to describe their journey. Research suggests that people use metaphoric language such as “it’s a good start” or “I’m getting there” as a way to track personal growth and progress. Using the metaphor of a path can direct a person’s focus and influence their perception of a goal in two ways:

  • Either they’re focused on the journey along the path…
  • …or they’re completely focused on where the path is meant to lead them.

Recent research by Stanford University compared whether people perceiving goal attainment as a journey rather than a destination were more likely to continue goal-aligned behaviours even after reaching their desired goal. The researchers conducted 6 different studies that looked at goal setting in over 1,600 people across different cultures. Irrespective of what their goals were, the findings suggested that viewing goal attainment as a journey was more beneficial in the long run. This is because by focusing on the present improved their self-awareness and encouraged self-reflection.

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4 ways to start focusing on the journey

1. Set smaller, shorter-term goals

When working towards achieving a long-term goal, a great way to keep yourself on track and motivated is to set yourself smaller, more achievable goals along the way. In today’s age of instant gratification, one common trap people fall into is this expectation of immediacy. To return to the example of losing weight, you won’t see massive results within the first week. If you were expecting to, this can demotivate you completely.

By creating smaller goals, not only will your motivation improve, but you’ll quickly notice if you start going off track. As a result, you’ll start to feel energised even by the smallest of progress, which will make achieving that final goal much easier.

2. Regularly reflect on progress

Life often comes across as a competition. Who can get the best grades? Who will buy a house first? Who will get their dream job? This constant comparison to others is not only exhausting but also completely demotivating. That’s why you must shift your attention to yourself and reflect on how far you’ve come. Stop saying “I still need to do this…” or getting frustrated by your slow progress and start focusing on why you should be happy with what you’ve achieved now.

Self-reflection is a powerful tool for creating a positive mindset and improving your self-awareness. Having strong self-awareness not only allows you to make more conscientious and informed decisions, but it also improves your psychological health. 

3. Keep a journal

One way to improve self-awareness and focus on the now is to keep a journal of your progress. By keeping a log of your daily progress or every time you achieve a short-term goal is an excellent motivator: you can see how far you’ve come from when you first started your journey, and reflect on how you’ve been doing so far. Research also shows that keeping a diary can improve well-being and metacognition.

4. Focus on what you can control

It’s okay to want to set yourself a large goal to strive towards. In fact, long-term goals can be great motivational tools. However, to truly enjoy and appreciate the actions needed to achieve this goal, you need to focus on your locus of control. Meaning, focus on things you can control (your actions and thoughts) and stop worrying about things you can’t control (like how long it will take for you to achieve your goal). In doing so, you’ll learn to be kinder to yourself.

Final thoughts

Before you can make good use of these tips, you need to set great goals for yourself. If you need more tips to do so, check out our blog on how to do goal setting right, or download our printable goal setting worksheets.