Image of a man with a giant pencil ticking off circles in a line that lead to a green flag, symbolising goal setting.
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How the science of goal setting can boost your career

5 Sep 2022

Pascal Possler talks about tried-and-tested behaviour change methods that can help anyone achieve their goals, both in and outside work.

One of the most well-known tips for using your time more efficiently and becoming more productive is setting goals for yourself.

These don’t have to be about getting as much work done as physically possible, but rather can be about creating a structure to get the most out of your time – making sure you achieve the tasks you have to do in work and ensuring that you’re including downtime in your schedule.

But not all goal setting is created equal. There has been a lot of behavioural science and psychology that can go into really effective goal setting to truly make a difference, and that’s where Pascal Possler comes in.

Possler is a consultant that started his business, Possler Consulting, using goal setting to consult on diversity and building internal strategies for companies. He then began helping successful artists and executives who were looking to re-evaluate how they could bring more purpose back to their work.

“In my work, I use evidence-based methods from psychology and behavioural science to come up with a sustainable plan of actions to turn their desired outcome into reality,” he told SiliconRepublic.com

Why people struggle with goals

Setting goals seems like a simple approach to staying focused during your work day, but it’s much easier said than done. Possler said people struggle with goal setting at work all the time and it’s important to remember that your work life and private life are interrelated, which means one can affect the other.

He also said that when you’re looking to boost your performance at work but are struggling with something outside work, incentives, training or even the threat of being fired may not be enough to change your behaviour. “When you tackle motivation, but it is about opportunity or capability, you are set up for a failure,” he said.

While some goals are easy to action, others are less clear cut or have competing goals that need to be achieved, meaning you could end up sacrificing one. In terms of work prioritisation, you may have day-to-day tasks with shorter deadlines that will always call you away from long-term strategising that has no strict deadline. But invariably, you find yourself consistently failing to make time for the long-term strategies.

Possler added that our brains are excellent at finding excuses when we don’t want to complete our goals. “Struggle could also arrive from trying to find easy fixes, from seeing one’s own identity as someone who is not doing this, or that it conflicts with someone’s identity or different roles.

“Struggle could come from many domains but as we are the best expert on ourselves, we can, little by little, ease them and overcome them.”

The science of goal setting

While goal setting has been defined and studied from many different disciplines, there is no unified field for it today.

Possler said the essence of goal setting is to come from an intention to an outcome, which usually requires a change of behaviour, be it a one-time action, a habit or a structural change.

“When you dig deeper, besides much pseudo-scientific nonsense, you will find studies on nudging, habit formation, incentives, social norms, training, resilience, behaviour change, efficacy and so on – there’s plenty,” he said.

“We mainly focus on two models that have been very well researched and applied for behaviour change and for individual’s goal setting. One is mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) by Gabriele Oettingen and the Behaviour Change Wheel by Susan Michie, Lou Atkins and Robert West of the University College London.”

Possler explained that the MCII approach has 20 years of research behind it and four clear steps to it: envisioning your wish, defining the most impactful outcome, imagining and picking the most likely obstacle, and then forming a plan to overcome this obstacle.

“The data tells us that this combined approach is much more successful than just envisioning, or starting with the problem, or just having a strong intention of doing something. Because of these four steps (wish, outcome, obstacle and plan) MCII also goes by the name of WOOP as a more pop-science name and easier to remember,” he said.

“The Behaviour Change Wheel is a result of merging the most successful frameworks of behaviour change models to create a hub of essential conditions of behaviour (capability, opportunity, motivation), determinants of behaviours and effective methods to inform an evidence-based approach to change your behaviour.”

Possler said while the first model gives people the steps to set goals and reach them successfully, the change wheel serves like an orientation when analysing obstacles.

“If we didn’t understand the context and the obstacle properly when designing a plan, we might not get to the desired goal. For that reason, I’d always recommend you evaluate your goal after a few weeks to see what we understand better now, what your goal is, or if you miscalculated which obstacle was your biggest one.”

Possler also warned against getting carried away with the temptation of making a big list of goals, outcomes and plans. “While this might give us a feeling of accomplishment, it’s the best way to lose focus in day-to-day life and not get anywhere. If you pick the most promising ones and stick to those, it is more empirically successful.”

Advice for applying goal setting at work

For those who want to reframe their mindsets straight away, Possler recommended WoopMyLife – a free website by Oettingen, the professor who developed MCII model, that people can use to find and fulfil their goals.

“I would recommend, however, to ask someone to take you through the process and ask good questions, without knowing the answers for you,” Possler said. “I always tell my clients that they are their best expert of themselves. I can tell them what is supposed to be helpful based on experience or empirical research.”

He added that it is often easier to achieve a goal when it is kept simple. “The easier a goal becomes, the less important motivation becomes. Make your goals as simplistic as possible and go from there,” he said.

‘It is always hard to see your own blind spots when setting a goal’
– PASCAL POSSLER

“When you want to work out, for instance, establish a habit first. Do five push ups every time at a designated time or cue. When you already do not manage to do that, it is much easier to understand the obstacle and change. When you manage to make it a small habit, it is much easier to go from there.”

Possler is working on a prototype for a manual so that people can ask anyone they trust to help them set goals.

“Finding someone else to talk to is one of the most important steps if you struggle, because it is always hard to see your own blind spots when setting a goal that should stand the test of a messy world called everyday life,” he said.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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