Goals are objectives; goal setting is establishing those objectives with the intention of achieving them. People implement goal setting in personal, academic and professional realms. An employer may present a goal to employees regarding increasing productivity or balancing a budget. A teacher may direct students toward obtaining certain grades. Goal setting is primarily a motivational mechanism and may be initiated by an external or internal force. Other terms synonymous with goals in the professional world include: performance standards, quotas, work norms, tasks, deadlines and budgets. The pursuit of goals is a prominent aspect of human behavior.
Goal setting is fundamentally primitive. The basic need to survive and the survival instincts that assist that need are the primal goals of all species. According to Darwin's theories on evolution and survival of the fittest, the most basic organisms are motivated to survive and adapt. Goal setting at its most basic level is necessary and instinctual. Radu J. Bogdan's book Grounds for Cognition: How Goal-Guided Behavior Shapes the Mind delves into the principles of goal setting as experienced on a cognitive level. Bogdan writes: "Organisms must guide themselves to their goals. Why guidance to goals? Because goals must be satisfied, and for that, organisms must locate and identify their goals. But why would organisms have goals in the first place? Because they are material systems or complexities that are genetically programmed to maintain and replicate themselves by engaging their worlds in goal-directed ways." The goals of a single-celled organism are extremely specific whereas the goals of a human being are complicated and challenging.
When a person sets a personal goal, whether to earn a certain salary, conquer an addiction, lose some weight or repair broken relationships, that person is making a conscious decision. Choice is a necessary component of decision making and precedes all other factors. Whether that choice is initiated internally or by an external influence, it propels the goal into reality by focusing attention on that goal and avoiding all distractions. Effort is required in goal setting. The amount of effort may vary depending on the subject's capabilities and motivation. Persistence is the driving force of goal setting and requires cognitive efforts and self-motivation. The goal setter must sometimes establish cognitive strategies for encouragement. Imagining achieving the goal is a common mental motivator.
According to Edwin A. Locke and a number of psychologists and experts in business, the more specific the goal, the greater chance the goal setter has of accomplishing it. Locke states: "A review of both laboratory and field studies on the effects of setting goals when performing a task found that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, 'do your best' goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development." Positive feedback, reinforcement and support by parents, employers or teachers are also conducive to goal achievement. Goal setting usually involves obtaining a certain amount of proficiency in a task within a time limit. The goal is difficult to achieve depending on the existing standards. A difficult goal may elicit more effort than an easy goal. A shorter time limit encourages a faster work pace than a longer time limit. The "do your best" goal is considered equivalent to setting no goal at all, as it lacks specificity and focus.
Though goals can be extremely powerful and influential, they are abstracts. Goals cannot be detected via empirical study and analysis. Only the end results of goals are measurable. Goal setting is invariably linked with decision making. Decision making involves identifying the problem; an event or goal may trigger the decision making process. The goal setter must identify alternatives, which is a difficult task, and then choose an action. Once that choice is made, it can be put into action. There are common variables that affect the outcome of goal setting. Commitment is critical; it emphasizes the importance of the goal and is sometimes due to promising results to others. Matters of self-esteem and self-efficacy are further stimulants to goal setting. The goal setter must believe that he or she is capable of accomplishing the goal. A confident person will set a difficult goal and persist in achieving it: The more difficult the goal, the more necessary commitment is for a successful outcome.