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.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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