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What is goal setting, and why is it important?

In partnership with Dr Gina Cleo

We speak to a habit-change specialist for insider tips

A women wearing grey at the gym practising her form with a fitness professional
A women wearing grey at the gym practising her form with a fitness professional

Have you ever set a goal – such as spending less money or exercising regularly – only to give up on it a few days later? You’re not alone. The main reason many of us fail to reach our goals is because we don’t go about setting them in the right way.

At nib, we consider ourselves your health partner, talking to the experts to get the guidance, tips and tricks to help you live your healthiest life.

To shed some light on why goal setting is important and how to set goals effectively, we spoke to habit-change scientist, Dr Gina Cleo.

Why is goal setting important?

“When done correctly, goal setting is an effective and often vital element of success,” says Gina. “Setting goals paves a clear path and focuses our attention towards a specific task.”

Goal setting theory

According to behavioural psychologist Professor John B Miner, goal setting works through three basic mechanisms.

  • Motivation: Goals energise performance by motivating us to expend the required effort proportional to the difficulty of the task.

  • Perseverance: Goals motivate us to persist in activities over time.

  • Focus: Goals direct our attention to relevant behaviours and away from behaviours that are irrelevant or detrimental to the achievement of the task.

Principles of goal setting

Gina outlines three principles of goal setting that will lead to success:

  • Self-efficacy: This refers to your belief in your ability to achieve your goal. It is the strongest predictor of success.

  • Intrinsic motivation: Research shows that intrinsic motivation (setting a goal because you have a genuine interest in achieving it) is much more likely to lead to sustained changes in behaviour than extrinsic motivation (setting a goal because you’re driven by external demands such as financial reward, recognition or pleasing others).

  • Challenge: A goal must be challenging yet attainable.

a gray-haired man doing a push-up at the gym with his personal trainer

How to set goals

There are several methods to set goals, I like to use a practical, evidence-based approach.

Step 1: Decide on a goal

“A goal starts with a decision,” says Gina. “This helps you ‘cut off’ other choices and courses of action. A decision is a commitment.”

She recommends setting small, achievable goals rather than big goals that are harder to achieve and leave us feeling overwhelmed. Rather than setting a goal to overhaul your entire lifestyle, try to set specific ones such as exercising three times a week or bringing a
healthy lunch to work, for example.

Step 2: Make it specific

The more specific your goal is, the better your chance of achieving it. “Think about the frequency, duration, intensity and other details relating to your goal,” advises Gina.

If you want to save money to buy a car, for example, decide when you want to buy it and figure out how much you need to set aside each week until then. Come up with a specific plan to save that weekly amount, such as giving up your daily takeaway coffee or cancelling a streaming service you don’t need.

Step 3: Write it down

Writing down your goal and how you plan to achieve it will help you develop a clear vision of your objectives and keep you accountable.

“Having accountability and tracking your progress are key to achieving your goal,” Gina explains.

Step 4: Take action!

Now that you’ve done all the goal-setting prep work, it’s time to get started. If you have a setback, try to see it as temporary rather than telling yourself you’re a failure and giving up.

“Sharing your goals with family and close friends and chatting about your progress with them is another good way to keep you motivated and on track,” adds Gina.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Dr Gina Cleo wearing a red top

In partnership with

Dr Gina Cleo

Dr Gina Cleo is one of Australia’s leading wellbeing experts, with a PhD in habit change. She is a dietitian, but Dr Gina’s passion for wellbeing extends beyond just what we eat. She has dedicated her career to helping people understand their habits and how small, consistent steps can impact health and wellbeing. Gina has a secret love-affair with Microsoft Excel and chai lattes.