A Test of 4 Approaches to Goal Setting: Here’s How to Set Yourself up for a More Successful Year

The beginning of a new school year is always an interesting time, and brings with it a familiar feeling. That curious mix of excitement and hope, with a dash of anxiety and an unsettling feeling in your tummy thrown in.

With so much going on, gastrointestinally and otherwise, it’s easy to take the “dive right in, figure out how to swim, and just go from there” approach. But then, 9 months later, we often look back at the year, wonder how it all went by so quickly, and wish we would have had more time to get more done.

Cliche though the term may seem, there’s a reason why goal-setting is one of the most important skills sport psychologists work on with athletes. And with the new academic year just around the corner, this seems like a good time to look at some strategies for setting more effective goals.

Because as baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

O Canada!

A pair of Canadian researchers studied a class of 125 first-year MBA students to see what manner of goal setting would lead to better performance (i.e. GPA).

The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups, each of which participated in a different 45-minute goal setting session during the first week of classes.

Distal outcome goals

One group was instructed to set 3-5 specific and difficult-to-achieve goals (aka “stretch” goals) that they wanted to achieve by the end of the year. Things like a certain GPA, summer job, or salary.

Distal plus proximal outcome goals

The second group set 3-5 specific year-end goals just like the first group, but in addition, created shorter-term stepping-stone goals (i.e. “proximal”, which is a strangely fun word to say, and a quality bit of jargon to add to your lexicon) to help them gauge progress. Things like the GPA they wished to achieve at the midpoint and end of the first semester (as opposed to end-of-year GPA only).

Learning goals

To this point, the students have been focused mostly on creating “outcome” goals which are essentially results-oriented. The musical equivalent would be something along the lines of winning the school concerto competition or a specific orchestral audition on the horizon.

By contrast, “learning” goals are more process-oriented, and are the strategies or processes that help us grow and develop the abilities that would enable us to achieve our desired outcome goals.

In this study, learning goals included developing strategies for mastering the material in classes that they didn’t like or were afraid of (makes sense, if one’s goal is to achieve a high GPA), or figuring out ways to network more effectively (so as to get a more desirable job by year’s end).

Going back to the musical examples, this might include identifying strategies to help with managing nerves and performing more effectively in competitions, or finding exercises and practice strategies to improve one’s intonation, sound, dynamic range, variety/control of vibrato, etc.

Do your best goals

The last group was not given any instructions on how to create specific goals, but simply urged to “do their best to find ways to ensure that their education experience was meaningful and satisfying for them.”

Which goals worked best?

At the end of the year, researchers looked up students’ GPA, and found that there were some significant differences in GPA between the four groups.

As it turns out, setting specific year-end goals wasn’t particularly effective. At least, it wasn’t any more effective than simply telling students to do their best1, resulting in the lowest GPA among all four groups.

On the other hand, setting specific year-end goals plus benchmarks along the way does result in a significantly higher GPA (3.54) than year-end goals alone (3.34) or vague “do your best” goals (3.42).

Setting learning goals appeared to be a helpful strategy too, with the students in this group also achieving a higher GPA (3.47) than those who simply set year-end goals2.

Take action

There are indications, both anecdotally from sport psychologists as well as in some studies, that top performers often have not just one type of goal, but a balance of both outcome and learning goals. Where they are focused on longer-term outcomes like winning a particular competition, but are also focused on the path and developing the skills they believe will help them get there.

Likewise, this study supports the notion that having both outcome and learning goals, as well as both long and short-term goals is most conducive to a successful year.

So before the school year gets going…

(1) Take a moment and write down 3-5 goals for the year. What do you want to achieve? What would you like to be able to say you’ve accomplished when you look back on the year?

(2) What milestones or benchmarks would help you gauge whether you’re on track or not? What are some mid-year goals, mid-semester goals, and perhaps even monthly goals that would let you know if your strategies are working or not?

(3) And finally, what are your learning goals for the year? What are the strategies and processes that will enable you to become a better musician, play at the level you are striving for, and realize the big, exciting, motivating goals that you’ve set for yourself?

Keep them handy. Look at them from time to time.

And hopefully, come June of next year, you’l be able to look back at your list and get that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing you accomplished some cool things…and grew into an ever so slightly more awesome version of yourself too.


  1. And in fact, it might be worse. The students also took a self-efficacy assessment to measure how confident they were in their ability to achieve their goals. The “do your best” group (and learning group) had significantly higher self-efficacy at year’s end than did the specific year-end goals group.
  2. They had a higher GPA than the “do your best” goals group too, but it wasn’t statistically significant. An interesting side note is that the learning goals group also expressed significantly greater satisfaction with their program at year’s end than those in the “do your best” group.

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10 Responses

  1. Thanks for this practical piece! I teach pre-college students (starting with beginners), and am just now working with them on goals for next year, but all I had were outcome goals (e.g., finish Level 6 by the end of the year). Breaking it into milestones and learning goals won’t take that much more time and it will provide clarity for both the students and parents about expectations and progress. Not only will it help with their music, but I hope that they learn a useful life skill in setting clear goals for their music progress. Perfect timing!

  2. Hi Dr. Noa,
    This is such a great topic, one worthy of a great deal more detail in the musical context. As an older student returning to serious piano study in my “empty nest” years, I’m probably (definitely) not your core demographic of young people striving to make a professional music career. I practice and play for the sheer love and enjoyment of the art. I don’t mind working hard at my craft and appreciate the discipline required to achieve results. However, I admit to getting discouraged when I don’t see or feel that I am making “progress.” I’m not sure if this is a matter of setting smaller “interim” goals, choice of appropriate repertoire, spreading too thin (working on too much at once) or some other factor. I’d love to see more on this topic. Thanks for a great blog.

    1. Hi Cindy,

      The frustration of not making progress is pretty universal, I’m afraid, so you’re in good company. It’s probably a mix of things as you suggest, but I do think setting small achievable “interim” goals is really helpful in keeping our motivation up. But also patting ourselves on the back for simply showing up every day and doing good work. Because that in itself is a meaningful achievement too – and done consistently will help us eventually get off that plateau. I’ve probably mentioned this elsewhere, but have you read George Leonard’s Mastery? One of my favorites…helped me to be more patient with myself in the practice room.

  3. For goal setting, there are the three questions that you mention above above, but I know an other from the Bar Wine Theory.
    A radical way that clears out your goals and your priorities.
    This is the following. The first thing is to love what you do and to commit to keep doing it. (for example, you write a blog, and you want to keep writing it) this is “business” (yours), you have stepped into the business world– for music, say, I perform, I want to keep doing it. That’s simple.
    The second step is to set a timer for 30 sec. Ready? You have to explain to someone else what your activity consists in and to convince him.
    If your first step is not clear, your second step will go along.
    I find that exercice really difficult because this is really the beginning of a change in your life — if you don’t what your business is exactly — and as everybody knows, change is not easy.
    If you want to know more about the Bar Wine Theory, I would advice you to buy the book–before school.
    And…I fail at the 30 sec exercice!

  4. I usually set goals with my piano students at the beginning of the school year, so I’m really glad I read this – it’s definitely given me some new ideas. Thanks! 🙂

  5. This reminds me a lot of a moment in the story of “Momo” by the German author Michael Ende. There is this place where the street cleaner Beppo tells the little girl Momo how to sweep a street: “Sometimes you have a very long street in front of you. You think, it´s so long, you will never make it. And then you start hurrying. Each time you look up, you see it´s not getting less. And you try even harder, you start getting afraid and in the end you are totally exhausted and out of breath. And the whole street is still in front of you. That´s how you should not do it. Never think of the whole street, you see? You should always only look at the next step, the next breath, the next sweep. Then it´s joy; that´s important, then you´re doing a good job. Suddenly you notice you made the whole street step by step. You didn´t notice how and you´re not out of breath. That´s important.”

  6. Love this! I come from a slightly different background (not classical nor music school, but from rock band playing) than the majority of the audience here, but I really think these concepts should be covered more in depth in every genre of music if we aim at making this art our profession.

    I’m actually going to implement this approach to my weekly review, thanks Noa! Glad I’ve found your site 🙂

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