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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Resolve to be specific with your goals, January 6, 2008, 2D.

At this time of year, it is common to hear people talk about setting New Year’s resolutions.  Becoming healthier by eating better, increasing activity and fitness levels, and losing weight are popular resolutions.  As common as it is to set New Year’s resolutions, it seems almost as common to hear about people breaking their resolutions.  Somehow, the good intentions behind many people’s resolutions fail to ever materialize into sustained change.  

Goal-Setting Theory, a popular motivation model, helps give explanation to why people hold to or fail to meet their resolutions.  Research on goal setting and performance has identified that goals, to be motivating, should be specific, challenging, accepted, and provide feedback.

“I want to lose 10 pounds by Valentines Day” is a much more specific goal than, “Over the next year, I want to get rid of the spare tire around my middle.”  Goal specificity gives people exact targets and timelines against which to measure their performance.   Accomplishing a series of small, incremental, and short-term goals gives the goal setter the ability to see movement toward the overall goal.

Goals that are challenging are more motivating than goals that are too hard or too easy.  Setting a fitness goal of being able to run a mile in four minutes might be unrealistically difficult for many resolution makers and eventually cause them to give up prematurely in frustration.  Setting a fitness goal of being able to run a mile in 20 minutes is probably too easy for many people and would not drive people to focus, train, and significantly alter their behaviors to attain that goal. 

People do things that they believe in and find important to do.  When goals are not accepted by the people who are responsible for meeting them, performance is less likely to occur than when people endorse and accept the responsibility for making them happen.  If people do not accept ownership and responsibility for meeting their goals, they will be more likely to give up on them when distractions and difficulties arise.

When people know how their current actions and levels of performance stack up against expected performance, they can sustain acceptable performance or make corrective actions to bring unacceptable performance back into line with expectations.  Someone who has lost only two pounds at the end of January while striving toward a “Lose 10 pounds by Valentines Day” resolution should realize that corrective actions are needed.  Waiting until Valentines Day to first step on a scale does not permit the goal setter to make corrective actions or maintain successful strategies during the performance period.

For resolutions to become realities, they should be specific, challenging (that is, neither too easy nor too hard), accepted, and have ways of measuring attained performance against predefined standards.  The things that lead to successfully attaining New Year’s resolutions are the same things that contribute to goal attainment in organizations by individuals and groups.   If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to accomplish greater things at work, try implementing the principles of Goal-Setting Theory.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved