Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Reaching One's Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Reaching One's Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy

Article excerpt


The present article reviews recent research on motivational factors that influence the success of personal goals. Although achieving progress on personal goals is made difficult by limitations in self-regulatory strength, it is argued that individuals who feel autonomous regarding their goals will benefit in distinct ways. The issue of autonomy concerns whether a goal reflects an individual's interests and personal values versus whether it is adopted because of social pressures or expectations of what an individual "should do." Recent research indicates that autonomous goal motivation can lead directly to greater goal progress by allowing individuals to exert more effort, experience less conflict, and feel a greater sense of readiness to change their behaviour. It also allows individuals to make better use of implementation plans specifying how, when, and where they will enact goal-directed behaviours. Support from other people (health care providers, etc.) can play a vital role in facilitating goal pursuits, especially when such support enhances feelings of autonomy. Successful goal progress results in enhanced positive affect and reduced negative affect, particularly if the goal pursuits involved satisfaction of intrinsic psychological needs.

Keywords: motivation, autonomy, goal progress

Every January, approximately half of the North American adults make a New Year's resolution (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). The most common resolutions for working adults are to lose weight, quit smoking, and reduce alcohol consumption (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). The most common resolution for college students is to improve their academic performance (Koestner, Lekes, Powers, & Chicoine, 2002). New Year resolutions reflect individuals' attempt to motivate themselves to achieve an important personal goal. Developing a specific goal intention is thought to call forth a universal action plan that automatically guides people to focus their attention on the goal, to muster effort, and to persist in the face of obstacles (Locke & Latham, 1990). New Year's resolutions are rated higher than other personal goals in terms of commitment; they represent personal goals that people really care about (Koestner et al., 2002).

Despite the importance of their goals and their commitment to achieving them, most individuals who make a New Year's resolution fail to achieve them. A prospective study of community adults showed that 22% of resolvers reported having failed after only 1 week, 40% reported failure at 1 month, 50% failed at 3 months, 60% at 6 months, and 81% after 2 years (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). These reports probably underestimate the actual failure rates because many individuals are reluctant to acknowledge failure in self-reports (Mariait & Kaplan, 1971).

A natural question to ask is whether it makes sense for people to set these kinds of personal goals. Not only do people fail to reach their resolution in any single year, but there is also evidence that they continue to fail even if they repeat the same resolution from year to year (Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClemente, 1995). Furthermore, people who fail at their resolutions report that the failure results in negative affect and lowered self-esteem (Mariait & Kaplan, 1971; Norcross, Ratzin, & Payne, 1989). Two leading researchers, Polivy and Herman, concluded that the generally negative results for New Year's resolutions make it difficult to understand why so many individuals persist at these attempts (Polivy & Herman, 2002). They argued that the cycle of failure and renewed effort was maladaptive and rooted in unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease, and consequences of self-change attempts. They provided evidence from weight-loss research in support of this model.

There are several reasons to question this negative conclusion regarding resolutions. First, it seems possible that Polivy and Herman's (2002) "false hope syndrome" may be uniquely relevant to weight loss attempts, which appear to be particularly unresponsive to long-term sustained change. …

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