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Estimated reading time – 5 minutes

A new year has started, and so does setting new goals. Unfortunately, approx. 55% of people who set new year’s resolutions goals will consider themselves successful at sustaining them in 12 months (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234097. eCollection 2020.) However, there is good news. Partially to blame for why people stop pursuing their goals is a poor goal-setting framework. This variable is within a person’s control, therefore, can be changed. The info within this post will explain how to set better goals to help sustain long-term goal attainment. It’ll take 5 minutes to read but may change your mindset to help achieve your goals this year

The traditional goal setting we are typically taught is using SMART goals. The issues with this goal-setting style are that these goals are usually outcome focused (rather than process) and are discreet goals that do not tie into a larger framework of goals. SMART-type goals are generally good for short-term motivation but fail to supply long-term motivation/persistence. Additionally, people are usually either doing or not doing their goals. If someone misses a day, etc., this is generally viewed as a failure and can reduce self-efficacy.

A better approach to goal setting is using a goal hierarchy. This involves setting superordinate goals (vague, longer-term goals), intermediate goals (general course of actions) and subordinate goals (specific goals which define how to do something exactly). Setting superordinate, intermediate and subordinate goals can help foster long-term goal pursuit as the advantages of goal types at one level of the hierarchy can overcome the disadvantages of other goals within the hierarchy.

Goal Setting

Superordinate goals

Superordinate are at the top of the goal hierarchy and are of most importance to a person. These goals describe what a person wants to be – A concept of how they imagine themselves and their values. An example is “I want to be healthy” Superordinate goals are usually vague, not overly specific and foster long-term goal pursuit. They provide the ‘backbone’ in someone’s goal pursuit due to –

Enhancing meaning – Representing what people value and want to aspire to.

Strengthening guidance – Guides the selection of actions one takes in life – E.g., choosing and rejecting actions and behaviours that influence goal attainment.

Heightened Importance – As superordinate goals are at the top of the goal hierarchy; they are the most important goals to someone. Focusing on superordinate goals can enhance goal pursuit by increasing motivation and commitment and help resist distractions and temptations.

Reducing temporal discounting – Reduce giving up larger future rewards in favour of smaller intermediate rewards.

Sustained discrepancy – When aiming for long-term goals, we have a discrepancy between where we currently are relative to where we’d like to be. As we get closer to our goal, this discrepancy closes. Once we reach the goal, there is no discrepancy. Therefore, motivation to continue working towards or sustaining the goal can reduce. As superordinate goals are vague and generally have no specific endpoint, there is always a discrepancy between the person and their goal. As such, motivation to sustain the goal can remain.

Increased flexibility – Superordinate goals are flexible and link to multiple smaller goals (subordinate goals). For example, the superordinate goal of “be healthy” can be pursued in numerous ways – Exercising, sleeping enough, eating healthier, etc. There are multiple ways to work towards a superordinate goal.

If someone, for example, is unable to exercise, they can still work on getting enough sleep and eating healthy. Not doing a particular behaviour/action doesn’t need to be considered a failure. Numerous actions can still be performed that progress toward the primary goal.

Intermediate goals

Intermediate goals provide the general course of actions and behaviours to achieve superordinate goals. For the primary goal of “be healthy” example intermediate goals can be – getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and managing stress. Multiple intermediate goals can work towards the same superordinate main goal.

Subordinate goals

Subordinate goals are at the bottom of the goal hierarchy. These are like ‘SMART’ goals. They provide specific steps and time frames to achieve goals higher up in the goal hierarchy. Multiple subordinate goals such as – exercising once a week, doing 40 push-ups per day and going to yoga every Thursday are all actions that bring someone closer to the intermediate goal of “be in good physical shape”. Subordinate goals are the ‘how’ we are going to get our primary superordinate goals. Whereas superordinate goals are the ‘what’ we want.

Interconnection of goals

A goal hierarchy is effective because goals from different levels are interconnected and can activate each other. Focusing on the superordinate goal (be healthy) triggers specific goals and actions at the bottom of the hierarchy (subordinate goals), referred to as top-down activation. Similarly, performing subordinate goals can bring to mind the connected superordinate goals (bottom-up activation).

For example, suppose someone is unmotivated to do 40 push-ups today. They can think ahead to their superordinate goal (be healthy), which may provide the mental push on why doing the task is important and cause someone to do the task, although they don’t feel like it.

Likewise, focusing on the superordinate goal (be healthy) can promote conscious and unconscious behaviours further down the goal hierarchy. Like resisting short-term temptations such as over-eating calories, binge-watching Netflix before bed which cuts into sleep hours etc., which are all steps to achieve the higher-up main goal.

Intermediate goals work similarly. They can encourage multiple behaviours at the bottom of the hierarchy (top-down). Likewise, achieving multiple intermediate goals can get someone closer to their top goal (bottom-up).

Combining superordinate and subordinate goals enhances successful goal pursuit

Superordinate goals are vague, not specific and may not have a definite end point. These goals are meaningful to an individual and support long-term goal pursuit. These goals’ downfall is that they do not provide concrete actions and are too far forward in time to provide immediate motivation.

Subordinate goals are concrete, specific, and have a clear endpoint. For example, train 4 times this week. These goals require less time to reach relative to superordinate goals and can provide an immediate incentive, therefore boosting motivation and self-efficacy.

The issues with these goal types are they are generally isolated to a single task, and you either fulfil or don’t fulfil these goals. If someone only trained 2 times this week instead of 4, this can be viewed as a failure, and the person is more likely to give up pursuing their goals altogether as there is no longer-term focus.

The combination of making superordinate and subordinate goals helps offset the shortcomings of each goal type, which can help foster long-term goal pursuit.

Practical Applications

When setting goals, it is suggested to work from the top down. Focus on what your main core goal(s) are. From here, create intermediate goals that feed into your superordinate goal(s). Lastly, make some actionable steps/subordinate goals that build you towards goals higher up in the hierarchy. It is more effective to set approach-based goals (e.g. go to the gym 4 times a week) vs avoidance goals (avoid skipping the gym more than 3 times this week).

You will probably find you don’t consistently fully achieve some subordinate goals, but can achieve others. That is the main reason for this goal hierarchy. It provides flexibility so you can always work towards your main superordinate goal, although you may not always complete all tasks at the bottom of the goal hierarchy. Partially fulfilling lower-level goals still brings you closer to higher-level goals. You will not always hit your goals 100% of the time. However, so long as you’re actively trying can still bring you closer to your primary superordinate goals.

References

Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2018). How focusing on superordinate goals motivates broad, long-term goal pursuit: A theoretical perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01879

Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. Plos One, 15(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097

Paul Attard
Paul Attard

Paul is the founder and head coach of SPC Performance Lab. Paul has been coaching since 2014 and has worked with all different types of people. From first timers learning the basics, all the way up to the experienced power-lifting competitors.

He tailors his approach depending on the needs, goals and experience of the individual. Paul has extensive theoretical and practical coaching experience.

- Masters of Sports & Exercise Science (Strength & Conditioning)
- Bachelor’s degree in Exercise & Sports Science with First Class Honours
- Competed and won multiple natural body-building shows & power-lifting competitions.
- Held an Australian power-lifting record.

Free advice

SPC Performance Lab is a gym in Taren Point in the Sutherland Shire, Sydney NSW. It is a private gym that offers strength training, powerlifting and body building training. The gym is open 24 hours, 7 days a week with membership options that include casual or regular visits.

Paul also provides a choice of personal training one on one or the option of online coaching.

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