What is goal setting, and why do we do it?

What is Goal Setting

The idea of goal setting is nothing new, but as with many things, when we don’t understand why we do something and how it helps us, it becomes both less effective and less motivating. Today, let’s take a closer look at goal setting on a granular level.


When we set a goal, we do so with the intention of guiding ourselves towards a desired outcome, triggering new behaviors, and keeping our motivation high. We also utilize goals because they help us better measure our progress, outcomes, and overall success; they give us a better sense of efficacy and can ultimately help us improve our belief in our ability to achieve, also known as “self-mastery.”


The research of goal-setting is extensive, and honestly, a little dense. But what we can take away from this research is that goal setting can be broken into four different categories of motivation:


  • Mastery-approach

  • Mastery-avoidance

  • Performance-approach

  • Performance-avoidance


Let’s break it down, shall we? Mastery refers to wanting to, well, master something for intrinsically motivated reasons. Learning a new language because it interests you, losing 5 pounds to feel better, chasing your marathon PR, deepening your yoga practice—these things are motivated by an internal driving force, a desire to do better simply for ourselves. On the other hand, “performance” is comparative: setting goals to perform against other people, metrics, expectations. Gunning for the top sales position at work, winning the marathon, losing 5 pounds to fit a body ideal, graduating Magna Cum Laude.