If you’ve ever tried to achieve a new big goal, you know it can be tough to stay with it. From losing a lot of weight to completing a large project, long-term goals (also known as distal goals) can be hard to stick with and complete. To make long-term goals easier to manage, a popular strategy is to create short-term, or proximal goals.
Different types of goals to tackle big achievements
When it comes to achieving a specific performance, there are different ways you can set your goals.
You can set a distal goal of eventually achieving that performance– 1,000 units sold in a year, 80 pounds of fat lost, winning 30 out of 30 matches to get your championship trophy.
You can also try to “do-your-best,” creating an abstract goal for you to accomplish, based entirely on subjective feeling.
Finally, you can set distal goals chunked into smaller, proximal goals– 100 units sold by next month, then 500 by July, etc etc.
Who is actually “doing their best?”
In a 2002 review of 35 years of goal setting literature, it was stated that the research pointed to setting large, distal goals alone was the least effective in producing desired performance outcomes. (Locke & Latham, 2002) In fact, “do-your-best” goals led to better performance than long-term performance goals. However, even better than “do-your-best” style goals, the best performance outcomes came from combining distal goals with proximal goals.
In a 2000 study of the performance of nursing teams in a hospital, groups were led through meetings where they would develop long-term goals for their performance. (Weldon & Yun, 2000) The non-control groups were set up to either create a distal goal of 6-9 months down the road, or to set a long-term performance goal and one or two short-term goals to serve as intermediate steps. As a results, the groups who set proximal goals in addition to distal goals produced better performance than distal goals alone.
Effects of Proximal goals on long-term performance
In the Nurse team study, they also found that the distal+proximal goal groups who set harder proximal goals set longer time-frames, and eventually had higher performance. This can be interpreted as proximal goals can help keep focus and commitment to distal goals over longer periods of time.
According to Bandura (1997) proximal goals help with work toward achievement of distal goals in different ways. Proximal goals:
- Create a sense of immediacy and reduce procrastination
- Provide clear marks of progress toward long-term goals, increasing motivation and feelings of accomplishment
- Provide benchmarks to evaluate progress toward the distal goal so you can develop more effective strategies if you’re not on target
- Increase perceived efficacy for the ability to achieve the larger goal, increasing effort and persistence.
- Lead to a sense of mastery and agency that increases intrinsic interest on the task
Through the literature review, it was also revealed that proximal goals also increase error management, giving feedback to allow performers to juxtapose their ideas of reality with how much is actually required to attain the distal goal. Proximal goals allow you to track your progress and readjust your strategies and effort to stay on track with your end-goal.
Possible mediator of method for setting proximal goals with distal goals.
So we know to use proximal goals with distal goals, but which do we set first? It is common coaching practice to teach performers to start with the distal goal, and work your way backward, creating different milestones to achieve that goal. However, that may not be the best strategy.
Going back to the nursing team study by Weldon & Yun (2000), they found that group members who set longer, more difficult goals had set their proximal goals first, then projected out to their distal goals. The group members who set higher goals spent more time developing strategies to improve their performance, and had overall higher performance, though it was over a longer period of time from the distal goal only group (9 months vs 7 months).
This suggests that forward goal-setting procedure could be a better method than backward goal-setting procedure, and the authors of the study suggested more research into the mediating effects of goal-setting procedure is needed. However, while looking into the subject, more studies could not be found, and thus more research seems to be needed. If this assertion that forward goal-setting procedure creates better performance than backward goal-setting proves to be true, this could turn performance and productivity models on their heads. Stay on the lookout for updates to this research!
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. Macmillan.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building A Practically Useful Theory Of Goal Setting And Task Motivation: A 35-year Odyssey.. American Psychologist,57(9), 705-717.
Weldon, E., & Yun, S. (2000). The Effects of Proximal and Distal Goalson Goal Level, Strategy Development, and Group Performance. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 36(3), 336-344.