To do or not to do: How to set more ambitious goals

To do or not to do: How to set more ambitious goals

As the period of new year’s resolutions has come to an end, you might be starting to think about different nutrition plans or workouts plans to help you shed some of the extra pounds, compliments of the holiday season. Or perhaps months of lockdown have inspired you to run a half-marathon in the new year, or you’ve now taken up virtual Pilates and want to get better at it. Thanks to research, we are pretty familiar with how setting these goals will impact your behavior and performance. We know less about what makes people decide the level of their goals: for example, deciding to work out twice or three times per week. Sonja Prokopec (ESSEC), Mirjam Tuk (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University), and Bram Van den Bergh (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University) looked at how to prompt consumers to set more ambitious goals.

We are constantly setting goal levels in our daily lives: exercising twice a week, saving 20% of our paycheque, attending 80% of our university lectures... By setting concrete goals, we tend to be more likely to actually achieve those goals than if we had just set ‘do-your-best’ goals, something like “I’ll save as much as possible this month”. This much is already well established: there is a large body of research examining the outcomes of setting goals. We know less about the determinants of setting goals, which Dr. Prokopec and her colleagues focused on in their recent paper, through exploring how to influence people to set more ambitious goals. They looked at two different ways of framing goals: considering how many goal-consistent activities to engage in (goal-consistent decisions) vs. considering how many goal-consistent activities to forego (goal-inconsistent decisions). For example, when planning your weekly workouts, you might say “I will work out four times this week” (goal-consistent framing) or “I will rest three days this week” (goal-inconsistent framing). As Prokopec and her colleagues argued, how you frame it can make all the difference. Why? Because if you make a decision that is inconsistent with your goals, this triggers negative emotions like guilt and regret, which will then boost your motivation for self-improvement and encourage you to set higher goal levels. So instead of working out only three times per week like in the goal-consistent framing example above, you might end up working out four or five times because skipping a gym four times per week might not feel good enough.

How it works

Over a course of seven studies using a mix of “real-world” and lab settings, Prokopec and her colleagues looked at how people set goal levels in different situations, allowing them to test different aspects of their theory. They found that making goal-inconsistent decisions indeed made people more ambitious, and that this held regardless of the way the goal level was presented (an open-ended response box, a slider scale, or as a range). Situations that are less critical for goal achievement (skipping the gym vs. skipping taking the stairs) proved less likely to provoke those negative emotions mentioned above, and in those situations, people were less likely to set higher goal levels despite exposure to goal-inconsistent framing. Similarly, if people were provided with some positive affirmation, they also were less likely to experience negative emotions and thus to set higher goals. Conversely, when people were making goal-consistent decisions, nor the relevance of the situation to their goal nor receiving positive affirmation impacted the goal level they set, demonstrating the link between making goal-inconsistent decisions and the emergence of negative emotions.

To rule out other explanations, Prokopec and her colleagues also looked at other possible drivers of the increased goal levels. When “choosing” or “rejecting” a decision (i.e. the decision to eat healthy healthy foods vs. skip unhealthy foods for goal-consistent actions, or to skip healthy foods vs. eat unhealthy foods for goal-inconsistent ones), the main factor impacting their goal levels was still whether or not the action was consistent with their goals, not if they were choosing or rejecting to do it. They also found that the amount of perceived effort didn’t impact the goal levels they set, even when the amount of effort was manipulated to be more or less in a lab setting: the effect still boiled down to the influence of the framing.

So how exactly does making a goal-inconsistent decision drive us to push ourselves further? As mentioned, that kind of decision can provoke negative feelings about ourselves, such as feeling guilty, regretful, or disappointed about our decision. Prokopec and her colleagues found that these feelings subsequently produced a motivation for self-improvement, which then drove people to set higher goal levels for themselves. In other words, people sought to resolve those negative feelings with their drive to be better and therefore set themselves more ambitious goal levels.


Taken together, this series of seven studies gives insight into what makes people set higher goals for themselves. Framing a goal level decision in a way that is inconsistent with your goals leads to negative emotions like regret and disappointment, producing a desire for self-improvement, and leading us to redouble our efforts and set higher goal levels in the aim of getting rid of those pesky negative feelings. This knowledge can help individuals looking to achieve their goals with a better understanding of the factors influencing goal setting and goal-achievement. It can also provide a guideline on how to frame your goals in a more ambitious way, and how to use the mere thought of “failure” (goal-inconsistent decisions) as fuel.

Professionals, like services aiming to help consumers achieve their goals (like gyms or Weight Watchers), or public health professionals aiming to encourage the public to follow health guidelines, can also make use of this information. It could also help managers learn more about how to motivate their employees. By understanding how people set goal levels, we can nudge people toward their goals in a more effective way.

Raising the bar

How can you use this information to set higher goal levels and stick to them? Keep in mind the following:

  1. When coming up with your goal, frame it in a goal-inconsistent manner, i.e. “I will skip 2 workouts per week” rather than “I will go to 3 workouts per week”.
  2. Lean into negative feelings caused by framing your goal in a goal-inconsistent way, and use them to fuel more ambitious goal setting, and subsequently your goal achievement.
  3. If you are helping someone else to achieve their goals (a service provider, for example, or a manager), recognize the power of a simple intervention. Framing an action as “goal-inconsistent” (choosing how many workouts to skip) can help push people to set higher goals.

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