The Psychology of Goal Setting: If There’s a Will, Is There a Way?

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


August 23, 2021

Do you set goals for yourself? Do you have daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly goals?

Planning and goal setting are at the essence of my being — quite literally. There isn’t a day that passes by where I don’t have an agenda set out for myself, or a list of priorities waiting to be checked off.

However, the act of setting goals and actually achieving them are two separate events.

What Is a Goal?

Goals are typically characterized as a desired outcome that is coupled with a set of interventions or tasks required to achieve that end state. We often set goals to achieve milestones — whether small or large — which would otherwise be left unsatisfied on their own.

Goal-setting behavior can be understood under the purview of motivation and cognition. Motivation (“the will”) refers to reward learning, while cognition (“the way”) refers to executive functioning. Both need to work together in order to manifest successful goal-setting and attaining behavior.

Motivation: The Will

I think it’s safe to assume that we’ve all felt a sense of motivation at one point in our lives — that rush of desire, volition, and drive to achieve something great.

Motivation may be conceptualized in two parts: first, the reward component, which refers to our wants; and second, the hedonic consumption component, which refers to our likes. When we set goals, we generally need to engage in or adopt new behaviors, which can be difficult. To that end, motivation, and, more specifically, the component of reward learning, is closely linked to goal-setting behavior.

With this in mind, the dopaminergic reward system plays a key role in reinforcement learning, which is critical for adopting new behavior(s). Reinforcement learning and subjective value go hand-in-hand. When learning new behaviors, it’s generally better to provide positive reinforcements. In this way, we are more likely to repeat the same action, as it is associated with reward. As we continue to learn, we will impart a certain amount of value or good for the successful completion of an action — referred to as subjective value.

Why is this important? Goal setting can involve a lot of new behaviors, often ones that are uncomfortable because they push against the tide of old habits. However, our reward system (motivation/“the will”) teaches us how to systematically change old ways and allow us to adopt new behaviors that will take us one step closer to a desired end state.

Cognition: The Way

In addition to motivation, we also need to exercise cognition when we attempt to achieve our goals. A higher level of cognition is required when we engage in novel tasks, known as executive functioning. Executive functioning includes, but is not limited to, working memory capacity, attentional focus, planning and organizing, etc. This level of cognition requires effortful and conscious engagement of our attention. Engaging in novel behaviors exercises our bandwidth of knowledge, control, and focus.

If There’s a Will, Is there Always a Way?

I’ve only briefly touched upon some of the processes involved in goal setting. Goal-setting behavior is quite a complex web of psychological and neural processes. It is certainly an exercise of the mind. So, next time you’re setting goals for yourself, how will you endeavor to achieve them?

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.


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