Yesterday I had the pleasure of catching up with some of the participants from our three-week pain management programme. It had been six months since they attended the programme, and it was time to see how they had got on. Sadly for some it seemed that best intentions hadn’t lead to results, but for one in particular, life was very different.
As I listened to her talk about how life had changed, a comment she made really stood out. She said ‘I looked back at what I had written six months ago and I thought how different things are now. I’ve done everything I said I would do’.
The power of goal-setting – and not just setting the goals, but writing them down, then, as a certain brand of sportswear says ‘Just do[ing] it’.
One of the amazing things about her situation is that the last six months have not been plain sailing for her – she had two health set-backs that could have distracted her from her goals and been used as a great reason for not achieving. But she drew on the skills she had developed from the programme, and turned the set-backs into opportunities for developing in other areas, then simply began again.
This person also talked about how the goals she had achieved made her feel. She said that she was in control, she knew what she wanted and was going to do it, instead of pain, her case manager, her family’s needs, or even her health dictating what was important to her, she did.
A few weeks back I talked about goal-setting theory, and this woman’s experience is a great demonstration of how the theory works.
Just to review, Locke and Latham (2002) define goals as ‘the object or aim of an action, for example, to attain a specific standard of proficiency, usually within a specified time limit.’
Latham proposed there was a positive, linear relationship between difficulty and level of performance, and that having a target seems to work better because people have something to aim for, and are clear on what needs to be done.
Why goals work:They are directive, they energise, they affect persistence, they affect action indirectly by leading people to discover relevant information and strategies that they can use to achieve the goal.
Importance and confidence drive commitment to goals, and commitment is increased by being public about a goal, others inspiring action and being supportive, and seeing success along the way. A goal serves as the standard for evaluating one’s own performance, so the higher the goal, the higher the demand from the person, the less satisfied a person is with their current situation.
Self-efficacy or confidence is influenced by ensuring adequate training is available, and verbal communication that expresses confidence the person can do it. The combination of goals plus providing feedback is more effective than just setting goals – it’s important to monitor goals and record achievement.
With encouragement, people who start to develop new skills will find ways to extend themselves by setting themselves new goals.
When learning a new skill, specific instruction to ‘use your new skill to complete this task within 20 minutes’ will be more demanding but help learning and achievement much more than ‘complete this task as well as you can’. The pressure of getting the job done ‘as well as you can’ forces the person to revert to old habits which then interfere with learning the new methods – and ultimately slows the goal achievement too.
Small goals that are relevant to a longer-term goal will assist achievement and increase self efficacy – but often smaller, immediate goals are poorly formed and don’t actually contribute to the end-goal.
A good example of this is the use of exercise programmes for people who are on their way to returning to work with chronic pain. Exercise programmes may be great for increasing fitness and confidence to move despite pain – but to many people they become the focus for achievement instead of a step along the way to returning to work.
Exercise programmes are often provided in the assumption that a factor interfering with returning to work is general fitness. In fact, it seems that fitness per se is not the problem, it’s much more about confidence to carry out work tasks – which can only happen in the workplace. People don’t seem to generalise from a fitness setting to a work setting.
To return to the woman I described at the start of this post: she had written goals that were specific, she had smaller goals that she developed to help her achieve her long-term goal. She focused on what she had to do rather than the outcome (ie she said she wanted to be out looking for a job rather than ‘be in paid work’) – this is important because she can focus on her actions rather than having an outcome dependent on other people. And her actions are known to increase the chance of the end-goal being achieved.
When she had a set-back, she knew how to go about setting her own goals, how to use positive self talk, and how to monitor her progress. She was held to her goals by her family who supported her goal, and by returning to the review with us where she wanted to be able to tell us what she had achieved.
Learning for the day? Given the tools to do it, and goals the person thinks are important and that they feel confident they can achieve – not a lot can get in the way!
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