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How to set effective goals

Through completing this course so far, you will probably have expanded your ideas about the number of ways in which you can develop your career. But which should you pursue? And how can you maximise your chances of achieving some of these ideas? At the end of this week of this course, you will be asked to develop an action plan, which will involve setting effective goals.

The five principles of goal-setting

Starting in the 1960s, Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham set about researching goal setting and motivation. Their book “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance” proposed Five Principles of Goal Setting. They said that goals should be clear, they should provide a motivating amount of challenge and they should have the commitment of the person setting them. When working to achieve a goal Locke and Latham suggested that feedback on progress so far should be taken into account (so that changes can be made to goals if necessary). Finally they recommended that people planning goals should take into account the complexity of the tasks required to achieve them.

You can read more about Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory on the MindTools website.

So, imagine your goal was “develop my presentation skills”.

By applying the five principles of goal-setting, this goal might look something like:

“By December I will have delivered three presentations to an audience. When preparing the presentations, I will consider the audience I am speaking to and how best to approach the topic. I will get feedback on my presentations and use this to improve in future.”

Let’s look at how this goal uses the five principles:

  1. Clarity: What you want to achieve, how and by when is very clearly set out.

  2. Challenge: In Locke’s original research in the late 1960s he discovered that easy-to-achieve goals led people to perform poorly and achieve less than those whose goals were more challenging.

    So, researching and planning three high-quality presentations won’t be easy, but it should be achievable. Be realistic in your goals – it may for example be less realistic to say you would deliver 10 presentations by October.

  3. Commitment: As you’ve set the goal yourself and it’s something that’s important to you, you should feel committed to achieving it.

  4. Feedback: Feedback is the process of you and/or others regularly looking at your progress in achieving your goal. This “feedback” allows you to make changes to your goal if an unexpected challenge arises (for example, what would you do if you didn’t have the opportunity to give the presentations?).

    It’s not just unexpected events that can throw us off-course, sometimes – no matter how hard we try – we will make errors when setting goals. For example researchers Weick and Guinote (2010) found that people who perceive themselves as powerful underestimate the time required to complete their goals. Being open to changing your goals based on feedback means that errors like this can be corrected.

    If you are clear in defining your goal, it should be easier to check your progress towards it.

  5. Task Complexity: Goals should take into account the complexity of the tasks required to achieve them.

There’s a lot to do with this goal; researching the content for the presentations, organising and planning them, delivering them…but it’s achievable and the amount of time is commensurate with the goal.

You’re now ready to transform your ideas into specific goals. Together these goals will form your action plan to get you where you want to be.


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

Weick, M., & Guinote, A. (2010). How long will it take? Power biases time predictions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 595-604.

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Prepare for Career Success at University

Goldsmiths, University of London