Goal setting theory by Dr Edwin Locke

Goal setting theory to motivate you

Goal setting theory was pioneered and established by Dr Edwin Locke in the late 1960s. In his 1968 article "Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives," Locke proposed the theory that working toward a goal provided a major source of motivation to actually reach the goal. The idea is that you become invested in reaching the goal, strengthening your motivation to achieve it.

Locke found that how difficult and specific a goal was had a direct impact on an individual’s performance of a task.

Non-specific or easy goals just didn’t motivate people to try very hard, while clearly defined goals spurred them to achieve. It’s more of an accomplishment to reach a harder goal, so you get a greater feeling of accomplishment!




In 1990, Locke and his colleague Dr Gary Latham published a joint work, "A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance." The book outlines the five principles of goal setting which must be evaluated in order to fully motivate a person to achieve:

1. Clarity.

2. Challenge.

3. Commitment.

4. Feedback.

5. Task complexity.



Clear goals are very specific, leaving no room for confusion as to what the objective really is. When you set a goal that is clear and specific, and there is definite time set for completion, you know what's expected of you.

Instead of setting vague goals such as ‘do better on my next test’, the goal should be ‘score an 85 or higher on my next test’. You can structure your game plan much more easily with a specific goal in mind. Use specific and measurable standards. "Reduce job turnover by 15%" or "Respond to employee suggestions within 48 hours" are examples of clear goals.


Challenging goals encourage you to stretch a little farther, and accomplish more. This gives you a feeling of victory when you complete your goal, and sets you up for your next accomplishment.

Each success adds to the building of a ‘winner’ mindset - and people who think like winners act like winners! When you set an appropriate reward for yourself for reaching your goal, you add to the motivation - and the more challenging the task, the greater the reward should be.

Keep in mind, however, that goals should also be realistic - the only thing worse than a goal that is not challenging enough is one that proves to be too challenging - failure can put you back at square one as far as self-esteem and confidence is concerned!


Committing to your goal is imperative. If you don’t throw yourself wholeheartedly into achieving your goal, success is less likely - and you will miss out on the joy of accomplishment.

Creating goals, making a plan to achieve them and carrying out that plan are important part of the process. You need to take an active interest in not only setting your goals, but on following through and seeing your efforts be rewarded. Then you can move forward to the next goal. Committing to goals you set in your life is showing faith in yourself and your future.


Feedback lets you know how you are doing, if the parameters of the goal need to be adjusted, and what your expectations can be for the future.

You can set your goals with appointed checkpoints at which you can look back and monitor your progress. When you have set a particularly large scope or long term goal, these mileposts allow you to manage one leg of the journey at a time, making a hard goal seem more attainable.


Task complexity is the final factor in any goal you set. A realistic time frame should be set that corresponds to the difficulty of the goal, and allowances made for circumstances or a learning curve which may make progress slow.

Steady progress with lasting results is preferable to a spectacular flash in the pan, so look for ‘slow and steady wins the race’. As long as you space the milestone just far enough apart that it is a challenge to reach them without courting failure at every turn, you can be proud of your progress no matter how complex a goal you have set for yourself.






After all, the point of goal setting is to learn to succeed!

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