Growing up as an athlete, I lived off goals. They were specific, measurable, and outcome-focused. When I was 14 years old they were on my bulletin board, daily reminders of what I wanted to accomplish.
As accomplishing my running goals became harder and harder, and the personal bests started to dwindle, specific goals started to hinder—instead of help—my motivation. They became reminders that I wasn’t making progress, instead of a guiding light and something to shoot for. The bold numbers that once had driven me now got in my way.
As I moved into other aspects of my life, I gave up on specific, measurable goals. I didn’t throw away all of my goals, but transitioned them to more open-ended process-orientated goals. Ones that I could still achieve, even if the outcomes weren’t quite there. And for a while, this worked. Process goals were the key, I thought.
Goals are meant to be north-stars, guides that help focus your attention and motivate you to take the actions necessary to achieve them. They are meant to be additive and positive, not subtractive and negative.
In the world of performance, it’s trendy to latch on to goal setting. Some leaders in the field latch on to process-orientated goals, such as executing your plan or giving maximum effort during a race. Process goals take back control, turning the focus on something that you can achieve regardless of whether the actual performance is going well or not. The other school of thought is to use SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. “I want to run a 3-hour marathon at the Boston Marathon in April,” for example.
When it comes to goal setting, what should we do?
Like most things in life, the answer is it depends. Recent research out of the University of Wollongong in Australia found that what type of goal setting one utilizes changes the psychological state of athletes during performance.
When athletes used an open-ended or a “do your best” type of goal, they were more likely to enter flow, the psychological state popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where you feel in the zone like everything is clicking. When you’re in flow, the performance seems easy, it comes naturally.
On the other hand, when athletes utilized specific goals, they were less likely to enter flow but more likely to enter what’s called a clutch state. Clutch states occur when an athlete feels some kind of pressure but is able to increase their focus and arousal so that they can perform when the game is on the line. Unlike flow, clutch states are effortful, and often described as a “grind.”
Both flow and clutch states lead to better performance, just like both goal-setting methods can be beneficial. Next time you are setting goals for the upcoming season, quarter, or school year, consider what psychological state will put you in the best place to perform for the task or context at hand.
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