Goal Monitoring: Why it pays to keep your eye on the prize.

Key Points

  • When people track progress towards their goals, it can have a positive impact on goal achievement.      
  • However, many people aren’t naturally inclined to track progress against their goals. Fortunately, research shows interventions that encourage goal monitoring are effective.
  • Further, how we monitor goals may make a difference: Physically recording progress and reporting it publicly increases the impact of monitoring on goal achievement.

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What do New Year’s Day, the start of the fiscal year, and the kick-off of a political campaign have in common? The unveiling of big goals and ambitions, often with great fanfare! It’s exciting to set bold goals and envision a better future. But as we all know, setting goals and achieving them are two different things. In fact, research indicates that we may have a better chance of attaining our aims if we make explicit efforts to monitor our progress towards our goals. This involves periodically taking note of what we are doing (behavior/action), the resulting changes (outcome), and how those changes compare to what we are aiming for (target).

Benjamin Harkin and colleagues undertook a meta-analysis that looked into ways to encourage goal monitoring (2016). These investigators were interested in whether or not interventions were effective in changing how often people monitored their progress, as well as the impact of such monitoring on the achievement of goals. The meta-analysis included only highly rigorous experimental studies and therefore allows us to confidently make causal inferences. However, most of the 133 studies included in the analysis were health-related (e.g., monitoring weight, blood pressure, etc.). Therefore, generalizing the findings to other contexts should be done with some caution.

Goal monitoring may not come naturally — encourage it!

This study shows that efforts designed to boost people’s monitoring of their goals were “highly effective” in doing so. While seemingly obvious, this finding is one worth remembering. As the authors note, some research indicates people do not naturally monitor things — how often do you check your bank balance? Or your weight? If we want people to track their progress, we likely need to take steps to encourage them to do so.

Goal monitoring may be as important to achievement as goal setting is.

This study found that goal monitoring had a small-to-moderate effect on goal achievement. The authors point out that this effect size is similar to the impact goal intentions have on goal attainment, as reported in other studies. In other words, tracking progress towards your goals may be just as important to achieving them as deciding what those goals are in the first place!

What you monitor and how you do it makes a difference.

When you monitor progress towards a goal, you may focus on your behavior (e.g., how much junk food did I eat today?) or you may focus on the desired outcome of that behavior (e.g., how much weight did I lose?) This study shows that goal monitoring influences only what you focus on: monitoring behavior impacts behavior, but not outcomes and vice versa.

Why does this matter?

Well, let’s say, your organization sets a goal to reduce total paper use by 25% over two years. You may encourage people to monitor how much they print — perhaps emailing them reports of printed pages per month. Harkin’s study indicates that doing so may influence their individual printing behavior. However, it may not get them thinking more broadly about other ways the organization might save paper. Focusing monitoring on the broader outcome of reduced organizational paper use may induce people to adjust other behaviors and processes, beyond their personal printing habits, to achieve that goal.

Additionally, this study indicates that different ways of monitoring may have different impacts on goal outcomes. For instance, it seems that when you physically record progress it has a greater effect on goal attainment than when you just mentally note progress. Perhaps this is because it makes information easier to remember. It may also make it harder to gloss over, particularly when it’s not good news! (However, the authors note they did not have sufficient data to identify the differential impacts of various methods of recording, such as online vs. paper. Future research is needed in this area.)

Further, the study found that when progress is reported publicly it is associated with a greater impact on goal achievement than when kept private. It could be that increased transparency about progress spurs people to work harder or to be more committed to their goals. We all want to look good, right?

Monitoring alone is not as effective as more comprehensive efforts.

Harkin and colleagues also found that monitoring has a greater impact on goal outcomes when performed in conjunction with other interventions such as goal setting, action planning and (immediate) feedback. As such, you may want to consider goal monitoring as part of a broader performance management effort.

Takeaways for Your Practice

  • Encourage and support progress monitoring. This study shows if you explicitly encourage goal monitoring, it helps! Consider providing individuals and teams with access to the means and information to track their progress and setting clear expectations for doing so.
  • Think of monitoring as part of a comprehensive effort.  Although making an effort to support monitoring of goals is wise, it may be even better to think about how monitoring fits into your overall goal or performance management “system”. For instance, how do you help people to develop effective goals, plan to achieve them, provide feedback, and encourage monitoring?
  • Record it, publicize it and make it ‘safe’. Physically recording progress and publicly sharing it may have greater impacts on goal attainment than not recording it and keeping progress private. While you’ll be the best judge of the right approach for your circumstances, consider experimenting with a variety of options. For example, you could share and discuss team progress data as part of periodic team debrief sessions. Or, you could encourage individuals to create peer support groups or to find a ‘buddy’ with whom to share how they are doing towards their individual goals. Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that openly sharing progress towards goals, which won’t always be positive, can be scary. If your intention is to help individuals and teams to learn and improve, make an effort to cultivate a supportive and safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing both “the good” and “the bad.” (Edmondson,1999).

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this summary. We found that it has a very high (90%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is only a 10% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350. Web. May 2017.  

Harkin, Benjamin, Thomas L. Webb, Betty P. I. Chang, Andrew Prestwich, Mark Conner, Ian Kellar, Yael Benn, and Paschal Sheeran. “Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence.Psychological Bulletin 142.2 (2016): 198-229. Web. May 2017.