Recipe For Setting And Achieving Goals

Catherine O’Brien

Control, Competence and Connectedness

Many people enter the new year with fitness and health goals. Whether it be to lose weight, go to the gym consistently each week, or run a marathon, the New Year is a time to reset and refocus.

woman standing on mountainWe are about a month into 2017…how are your health related New Year’s resolutions going? Hopefully the momentum with which you kicked off the year is going strong but if it isn’t, this may be a good time to breathe some life into your goals. As I have reflected upon my New Year’s resolutions and 2017 goals, I’ve become intrigued as to why some goals are easier to pursue and achieve than others. What factors play into goal pursuit? Research suggests that science contributes to why some goals are easier to work toward than others.

The Research

Milyavskaya et al (2014) conducted research to examine the goal setting behavior of college students across various life domains. Milyavskaya et al. measured the degree to which different domains of life were “need satisfying” and how this need satisfaction influenced the types of goals set. Need satisfaction was defined as the extent to which participants felt a sense of competence, autonomy, and connection in each of the domains.

They then examined whether the goal set in a given domain was self-concordant and autonomous or controlled. Goals were considered to be self-concordant if they were internally motivated and driven, while goals were considered to be controlled if they were motivated by external factors such as the expectations and wishes of others. Researchers predicted that high levels of need satisfaction in a given domain would lead to more self-concordant goals. Simply put, they anticipated that feelings of competence, autonomy and connectedness in a given area would result in a more internally driven goal.

In The First Study

Participants were asked to identify an area of importance in their lives, referred to as a domain within which they felt they had good control and were competent (need satisfying domain). They were asked to think of another important domain in which they felt they had less control and experienced more pressure (non-need satisfying domain).

Participants then imagined setting a goal in each of these domains and discussed their source of motivation for pursuing the goal. In line with the hypothesis, the researchers found that participants set more internally driven (self-concordant) goals in areas of their life for which they felt autonomous, competent and connected (high need satisfaction). The findings of this first study suggest that a key feature in productive goal setting is choosing areas of your life for which one feels autonomous, able and connected.

The Second Study

The second study actualized the hypothesis by asking participants to set an actual goal to pursue rather than just a hypothetical goal. Results for the second study were consistent with results of the first study.

The Third Study

Finally, the third study aimed to understand why people set more self-concordant goals and examined the degree to which self-concordance led to action in pursuit of that goal. This study controlled for a limitation of the initial two studies by having each participant rate the same four goals.

First, participants were given measures to assess need satisfaction of different domains. For example, school, social life, health/physical well-being etc. The purpose of this portion was to identify areas that had the highest and lowest need satisfaction. Participants were then given a brief presentation on mindfulness meditation and were asked to think about how meditation could be used to help them achieve a goal in one of the previously measured domains.

Related Article: Mindfulness – What Does That Even Mean?

The Goals

woman meditatingFinally, participants were given four goals related to mindfulness meditation and were asked to select one of the four goals to pursue

(1) practicing mindfulness meditation for 15 min every day for the next week

(2) practicing mindfulness meditation for 15 min 3 times a week for the next month

(3) finding some reading materials to further learn about mindfulness meditation

(4) taking a free online workshop on mindfulness meditation 

They rated these goals based on how intrinsic or extrinsic they were by identifying if the goal was something that someone else would want them to do (extrinsic) or something that they would want for themselves (intrinsic).

The findings of the third study were in line with that of studies 1 and 2 such that participants internalized goals more for need satisfying domains compared to non-need satisfying domains. Additionally, participants were more likely to choose the most self-concordant goal when they were setting a goal within a need satisfying domain. Finally, participants were more likely to take action toward that goal (measured by how they responded when the researcher asked them if they would like to receive more information via email) when the goal was in a need satisfying domain.

Follow Up Study

A follow up study conducted by Wener and Milyavskaya et al (2015) examined if goal self-concordance could predict perceived difficulty of the goal, effort and ease of goal pursuit.

Participants were college students who were asked to set goals at the beginning of a semester. They were sent follow up questionnaires pertaining to these goals every 4 weeks throughout the semester. The researchers measured effort and ease of pursuit in beginning and middle of the study and measured progress of goal at the end of the semester. The results aligned with their hypotheses such that self-concordant goals were reported as easier to pursue than controlled goals. There was also an element of effortlessness associated with goal pursuit for self-concordant goals in that pursuit of self-concordant goals came more naturally to participants.

It is important here to differentiate perceived ease of goal pursuit and actual effort. While participants expressed more effortless goal pursuit for self-concordant goals, analyses showed a positive relationship between effort exerted on the goal and progress of the goal. So while pursuing the goals came naturally when the goals were autonomous, effort is still an important factor in making progress. 


When it comes to setting and pursuing goals, research suggests that first and foremost, a sense of autonomy, competence and connectedness is essential. According to Milyavskaya, internally motivated goal pursuit is more successful. The research demonstrates how self-concordant goals are often easier to pursue because pursuit of these goals comes more naturally and effortlessly. It is important to note as well that the research also pointed toward the effectiveness of effort, regardless of perceived ease, when it comes to making progress toward a goal.

So, if you do find yourself falling off the health bandwagon this winter, take a step back and determine how you can gain autonomy and competence in the realm of health and fitness and then set self-motivated goals.

Related Article: Think Positive Thoughts For A Better Workout


Werner, K.M., Milyavskaya, M., Foxen-Craft, E., & Koestner, R. (2015) Some goals just feel easier: Self-concordance leads to goal progress through subjective ease, not effort. Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 237-242.

Milyavskaya, M., Nadolny, D., & Koestner, R. (2014) Where do self-concordant goals come from? The role of domain-specific psychological need satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(6), 700-711.

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