How do you get goals that work?
It is not only important that people set goals but also what types of goals they set. Within Self-Determination Theory the term self concordant goals has been introduced. Self concordant goals are goals which are consistent with the developing interests and values of the individual. When goals are self concordant people fully endorse these goals. They are autonomously motivated to pursue them.
Goals which are not self concordant don't fit well with the interests and values of the person. People pursue them not because they find them important or interesting but for other reasons. Examples of such other reasons are, guilt, shame, external or internal pressure, monitoring, punishments, rewards, being judged or graded, being threatened, criticized, or having a sense of self-worth which is dependent on pursuing the goal. When these factors are at work we speak of controlled motivation.
Previous research has shown that self concordant goals have important advantages. Here you can read that when people have self concordant goals they out in more effective and sustained effort, achieve more goal progress, and feel better. Here you can read that these positive effects of self concordant goals are, at least partly, caused because self concordant goals foster the use of effective self-regulation techniques. And here you can read that the satisfaction of people when they achieve goals (whether they are mastery goals or performance goals) is associated with the degree to which they are self concordant.
These studies show that self concordant goals are desirable. However, they do not show how we encourage people to have self concordant goals. A new study has shed more light on how to do that. Milyavskaya et al. (2014) examined to which degree the fulfillment of basic psychological needs (for autonomy, competence, and relatedness) influences the degree to which they set self concordant goals.
In three experiment they demonstrated that need satisfaction leads to setting self concordant goals due to which more goal progress is achieved. Furthermore they showed that need satisfaction leads to self concordant goals in two ways. First, people choose more self concordant goals. Second, they start to view given goals differently. When their psychological needs are satisfied they internalize these goals more easily (they start to view them as more valuable) and they start to view them as more interesting. The picture below summarizes what I've written above (click for an enlargement).
How is this knowledge useful? When you create contexts in which the basic psychological needs of people are satisfied they will choose goals which are consistent with their values and interests and they will feel better and perform better. They will also more easily view given goals as more valuable and interesting so, generally, they will also be better adjusted. In this article you can read more about how you may create such need supportive contexts.