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The 3 types of goals that will set your career on fire

What are the 3 types of goals (and which one is best)?

From New Year’s resolutions to sales commissions to performance bonuses, goals are intertwined in so many parts of society. Setting goals is easy; it’s achieving them that’s challenging.

So when it comes to the workplace, what kinds of goals should we set? Is there a way to set our goals so that we have a higher chance of attaining them?

In this article, we’ll walk through what science says about the three types of goals that can skyrocket your career, as well as some other goal types that could be useful to you.

What are the 3 types of goals?

We can’t talk about goals without talking about American psychologist Edwin Locke. Known for his goal-setting theory research—which found that specific, challenging goals elicit higher performance than vague, easier ones—Locke often discussed two types of goals: learning and performance. 

Throughout the years, of course, many people have proposed various other kinds of goals. Below, we’ll go over the three main types of goals and which one is best for your particular situation.

#1 Learning goals

Learning goals, also known as mastery goals, don’t focus on quantifiable results, but instead focus on acquiring a new skill or mastering an ability.

In one study, researchers Gary Latham and Travor Brown ran experiments involving MBA students to see how goal setting affected satisfaction and performance. They placed the participants in four different groups:

  • Long-term performance goals: This group set three to five specific, difficult outcome goals to achieve by the end of the academic year related. Examples included a certain GPA or salary level.
  • Long-term + short-term performance goals: This group did the same as the above group, and in addition, they set short-term outcome goals to achieve by the end of the first and second semesters. Examples of short-term goals included a desired mid-term GPA and number of job leads to follow up on.
  • Learning goals: This group identified three to five specific strategies or processes that would help them feel satisfied with their MBA program. Examples of this included identifying the rationale behind viewpoints that differed from their own and coming up with ways to master coursework that they didn’t like.
  • Do your best goals: Unlike the previous three groups, this group did not set any performance or learning goals. Instead, they were “urged to do their best to find ways to ensure that their education experience was meaningful and satisfying for them.”

The results? At the end of the academic year, those who had set learning goals were the most satisfied with the MBA program. And both the learning goal group and the long-term outcome goal + short-term outcome goal group had the highest average GPAs, though there was no significant difference between the two groups’ mean GPAs.

How does this play into work life? Well, it could suggest that you can boost job satisfaction through learning goals, while long-term + short-term outcome goals can help with performance.

The downside to learning goals is that, in a workplace setting, it’s not always enough to gain new skills or master a certain task. Yes, it’s great if you become an expert at negotiation, for instance, but unless you close deals that benefit your company, what use is that expertise to your organization? To make a profit and stay at the cutting-edge, businesses need their employees to achieve specific outcomes, too.

Examples of learning goals:

  • Identify new sales strategies.
  • Complete a course on business negotiation.
  • Learn how to use Facebook ads to acquire new customers.

When to set learning goals:

  • When the task is new to you
  • When you are not yet an expert in this particular area
  • When you need to acquire specific knowledge or skills before being able to achieve the goal

#2 Performance goals

Performance goals, also known as outcome goals, focus on a measurable result of personal effort. In the workplace, performance goals probably get the most attention of any of these three types of goals. 

Examples of performance goals:

  • Meet a monthly sales quota.
  • Land two major brand partnerships.
  • Hit 100,000 users this year.

Based on the Latham and Brown MBA study, if you’re going to set a long-term outcome goal, you also need to set short-term outcome goals. Think of these as the stepping stones. These “small wins” can boost your self-efficacy (belief in yourself) on the path to your big goal. In their paper, Latham and Brown point out that short-term goals also give you essential feedback that helps you find suitable strategies to reach your goals.

The downside to performance goals is that you can’t control the results. For example, you may set the goal of meeting your monthly sales quota, and you might do everything in your power to get there—but because sales depend on factors outside of yourself (such as customers and the economy), you might fail to reach the goal through no fault of your own. What if the economy tanks and people just aren’t buying? That’s outside of your control. 

When to set performance goals:

  • When the task is familiar
  • When you are an expert in this particular area
  • When you possess the necessary knowledge and good habits to achieve the goal

#3 Process goals

Process goals focus not on results, but on the steps you take to get to those results. The beauty of process goals is that you have complete control over them because they focus only on what you can do to reach a goal, rather than an uncertain outcome.

Because of their nature, process goals (which dictate how you will achieve something) must be secondary to performance or learning goals (which dictate what you will achieve).

Process goals tie in closely with “implementation intentions,” a term coined by German psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer. He found that when people specify the where, when and how of a goal (i.e., implementation intention), they are more likely to achieve it. A goal intention, for example, would be “I want to close 100 sales this year,” while an implementation intention would be, “Every day, I will call 15 new leads by 3 p.m.”

In a famous UK study, researchers Sarah Milne and colleagues wanted to see how implementation intentions affect exercise participation. Nearly 250 participants were randomly placed in either the motivation group, the motivation + implementation intention group or the control group. Both the motivation group and motivation +  implementation group were given pamphlets with information on coronary heart disease and exercise. Additionally, the motivation + implementation group was asked to fill out the following statement:

“During next week I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [day or days] at [time of day] at/or in [place].”

At the end of the study, researchers found that those who had formed implementation intentions were far more likely to carry out the intended behaviors (in this case, exercise). That means that having a plan for when, where and how you will do something to reach your goal increases the chances that you’ll do the work to get there.

Goals fight procrastination

And if you tend to procrastinate, that’s all the more reason to create process goals. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that participants who made implementation intentions around showing up to an experiment were almost eight times more likely to keep their appointment than those who did not make implementation intentions.

If you’re a manager, you can help your team create plans around how, when and where they’ll enact behaviors to help them reach their objectives. According to research by business professor Claudio Pousa, managers play a major role in helping their employees develop new task-related strategies (i.e., implementation intentions) that prepare the employees to handle challenges.

In his field study involving 184 salespeople, managerial coaching significantly improved both the development of implementation strategies and sales performance. Pousa recommends that managers have one-on-one coaching sessions with their subordinates to help them identify problematic situations, discover solutions and set the intention to enact those solutions in future interactions with customers. 

Examples of process goals:

  • Make 30 sales calls a day.
  • Submit partnership proposals to at least ten brands per week.
  • Review and revise Facebook ads every Wednesday. 

When to set process goals:

  • When the task is new to you
  • When you lack the good habits needed to achieve the goal
  • When you find yourself procrastinating

Are there other types of goals?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier, there are many more goal types beyond the main three listed above. Let’s go over some of them.

Specific, challenging goals

These are the types of goals that Edwin Locke lauded. His research found that specific, difficult goals inspired higher performance than vague, easy ones (e.g., “do your best”).

“Do your best” goals

Though Locke wasn’t a big proponent of “do your best” goals, there are some cases in which these types of goals can work in your favor. In a paper published in the Academy of Management Executive, Gary Latham and Gerard Seijts concluded that sometimes setting specific, difficult performance goals will result in a worse outcome than setting a “do your best” goal. They proposed that this was because novices may become so anxious about their performance that they get messy about finding the best strategies. So when a task is completely new to you and you lack the abilities, simply aiming to do your best might elicit a better outcome than striving toward a specific performance goal.

Outcome goals

The terms “performance goals” and “outcome goals” are often used interchangeably—but there is an important distinction between the two. While performance goals focus on your personal result (e.g., run one mile in six minutes), outcome goals focus on a specific result as compared to others (e.g., finish first place in the one-mile race). There is some confusion around these terms because the definition of “performance goal” differs depending on whom you ask; for some researchers, a performance goal is one in which you seek to outperform someone (which is what I refer to as an “outcome goal” in this article).

In a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers found that those who set goals aimed at improving their personal performance were more cooperative and open than those who set goals aimed at outperforming others. So if you’re working on a team and trying to build strong relationships, it might be best to set a performance goal rather than an outcome goal.

Short-, medium-, and long-term goals

Many goal-setting experts recommend breaking long-term goals down into short- and medium-term ones. This makes sense, as very few of us can sustain our motivation and effort when a goal is, say, two years away. It becomes much more manageable when we have small checkpoints every couple of weeks or so.

This ties into something known as “the progress principle,” a term invented by researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. In coming up with the progress principle, Amabile and Kramer surveyed 26 teams over the course of creative projects to see what affected their performance and emotions during work. After collecting 12,000 diary entries, they discovered a common theme: The participants’ best days (based on mood, emotions and motivation levels) usually occurred when they made progress on their work, while their worst days usually occurred when they experienced setbacks. So when you’re struggling to stay motivated on long-term goals, consider celebrating the small wins. Making progress on work that matters to you will do wonders for your motivation!

Be a goal-getter: Which type of goal will you set?

By now, you should have a better understanding of the three main types of goals and how you can use them to get what you want. Using the goal types in combination is a great way to achieve success. Depending on your situation, you can set either a performance goal or a learning goal, and use a process goal to support you and build the behaviors you’ll need to achieve the desired result.


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