Goals can provide direction and motivation as we move through life. However, the type of goal you choose and your underlying mindset can significantly impact your overall well-being and ability to sustain change. Goal setting theory is a science, and depending on how detailed or general we are, there are between 10 and 30 types of goals that have been identified. Examples of goal types include intrinsic and extrinsic goals, distal and proximal goals, means and ends goals, and approach and avoidance goals. One way to understand our goals is to identify them as performance or learning goals. Research shows that “learning goals” paired with a growth mindset are often more beneficial for motivation and well-being than “performance goals”. We will explore why shortly, but first let’s understand the main distinction between these two types of goals.
Performance Goals vs. Learning Goals
Performance goals are specific targets that focus on achieving a particular outcome, such as “Lose 10 kilos in 10 weeks,” “Be promoted to CEO in the next 12 months,” or “Win a tennis tournament this year.” They provide clarity and direction, but they can also create stress and a sense of obligation that limits openness and adaptability.
On the other hand, learning goals focus on growth, development, and the journey itself. Examples include “Learn about nutrition and practice how to be healthier,” “Learn new recipes to expand my cooking abilities,” or “Improve my backhand and focus to increase my performance in tennis matches.” Learning goals allow for more flexibility and adaptation along the way.
To put it simply, performance goals are outcome-oriented, while learning goals are process-oriented. Performance goals are great for achieving specific targets, but they can be stressful and rigid. Learning goals are more flexible and allow for personal growth and development.
Proving vs. Growing
Performance goals often tap into a need to prove yourself to others and gain external validation. This can ignite motivation initially, but also lead to defensiveness and reduced drive over time. Learning goals instead tap into internal motivations like curiosity, improvement, and a desire for mastery. They are more likely to sustain motivation long-term.
Let’s say you’re a professional who wants to improve their public speaking skills. If your goal is to prove to others that you’re a great speaker, you might be motivated initially by the desire to impress your colleagues or clients. However, over time, this motivation might wane, and you might become defensive if someone criticizes your speaking skills. On the other hand, if your goal is to learn public speaking for personal growth and mastery, you might be motivated by your own curiosity and desire to improve. This internal motivation is more likely to sustain your interest in learning public speaking long-term1.
Narrow Focus vs. Openness
Performance goals narrow your focus significantly, which can cause you to miss important information in your peripheral vision. Learning goals enhance openness and scanning of the environment, allowing you to notice more possibilities and signals. This benefits both performance and well-being.
My goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon by running a sub-3 hour marathon within the next 6 months. With this performance goal, I may fixate on specific training paces, workouts, and race times. I risk missing signals about overtraining, injury prevention, or technique. I could become so focused on the goal time that I lose sight of enjoying the process.
Now let’s see what happens if I replace this goal by a learning goal: My goal is to become a faster, stronger runner by improving my endurance, speed, and race strategy over the next 6 months. With this learning goal, I stay open to different workouts, periods of easier running, and recovery. I pay attention to my body for signs of overtraining. I consider technique tweaks that could make me more efficient. I’m focused on progress but flexible on how I get there, allowing me to both improve performance and stay healthy.
To sum up, the performance goal narrows my focus to just the marathon time, while the learning goal keeps me open to different signals and possibilities along the way. This benefits my running progress and overall well-being.
Threat vs. Renewal
Performance goals often activate our brain’s threat response and put us into “fight or flight” mode. While this can generate intense effort, it also increases stress hormones that inhibit higher cognitive functions. Learning goals instead activate parts of the brain associated with renewal, exploration and possibility. This is more sustainable over time.
Routine vs. Novelty
Performance goals work very well for routine tasks and settings where you have experience and the path to success is clear. But they often backfire in novel, complex and changing environments that require new learning. Learning goals enhance motivation and outcomes specifically when situations require creativity, innovation and addressing the unknown.
Growth Mindset Fuels Learning Goals
An important complement to setting learning goals is cultivating a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that your abilities can be developed through effort, feedback and practice. It contrasts with a fixed mindset, where you believe talents are innate gifts.
People with a growth mindset thrive with learning goals because they focus on growth and improvement. They embrace challenges, persist through obstacles, and view failure as an opportunity to learn. Growth mindset gives you the resilience and motivation to pursue lifelong learning goals. On the other hand, people with a fixed mindset prefer performance goals that validate their innate talents. They avoid challenges and give up more easily.
By pairing learning goals with a growth mindset, you maximize their benefits. You remain open to feedback and new strategies while staying motivated despite setbacks. This fuels continuous improvement and achievement over time. On your goal-setting journey, remember that your abilities are not fixed, but rather can grow. Set learning goals that stretch your potential while maintaining a growth mindset. With this combination, you have a powerful formula for realization and well-being.
Nuance and Balance
Of course, there is nuance here. The most effective approach is often a combination of performance and learning goals, timed and balanced appropriately. Performance goals provide direction, while learning goals give space. And certain personalities thrive more with one approach versus the other.
But in general, learning goals grounded in your true values and vision will do more for your sustained motivation, well-being and growth. They tap into your passions while retaining flexibility. Performance goals can play a key role, but are often over-emphasized compared to learning goals.
Reframe a Performance Goal into a Learning Goal
As we’ve discussed, shifting your mindset from performance goals to learning goals can be beneficial for your well-being and adaptability. Here’s a fun exercise: take a performance goal you have for yourself and try re-framing it as a learning goal.
For example, reframe “I will get an A in Calculus” into “I will master calculus concepts and improve my study habits this semester.” Or reframe a performance goal of “I want to increase my sales by 20%” as a learning goal of “I want to learn more about my customers’ needs and how I can better serve them.” This way, you can focus on the process of learning and growing, rather than just the outcome of increasing sales. This can help you stay motivated and engaged in your work long-term.
Notice how the learning goal version focuses more on the process, gives you flexibility, and taps into intrinsic motivations. See if you can re-frame some of your own performance goals into learning goals and observe the shift in your mindset. It takes practice, but can open up possibilities on your journey.
Reflecting on Your Goals
As you reflect on your aspirations and set goals, consider focusing more on the journey than just the destination. Learning goals can help you maximise both performance and enjoyment of the process over time. With balance, goal setting can be a valuable tool on the winding road of life. Performance goals and learning goals are not enemies, but rather brothers in arms. Fine-tuning the right balance between learning and performance goals will help you achieve your desired outcomes more effectively and sustainably in the long run.
Consider Working on Your Goals with a Coach
Having an outside perspective can be invaluable when reframing your goals. A coach can provide support and guidance to help you shift your mindset from performance to learning goals. Here are some ways a coach can assist in the process:
- Ask powerful questions to understand your motivations and values behind a goal. Get to the heart of why a goal matters to you.
- Help you clarify what success looks like beyond just the outcome. What is the deeper purpose or meaning behind what you want to achieve?
- Reframe the goal by starting with your vision and purpose, and then define the learning process to get there. Avoid starting with the specific outcome.
- Brainstorm creative ways to stretch your abilities through learning. Develop “experiments” or “challenges” related to the goal that require new skills.
- Discuss what motivates you intrinsically. Find learning goals that align with your passions and curiosity.
A coach partners with you to uncover what will truly drive your motivation and fulfilment long term. With support and new perspectives, you can transform performance goals into learning journeys that maximise growth and enjoyment. The destination may look different than you originally envisioned, but it will be powerful because you own the process.
This article explored distinctions between performance and learning goals and how they impact motivation and well-being. Key points include that performance goals focus on specific outcome targets while learning goals emphasize growth, flexibility and the process itself. Learning goals are more likely to sustain long-term motivation by tapping into intrinsic drivers like curiosity and mastery. Performance goals narrow focus, while learning goals enhance openness to new strategies and information. Learning goals activate brain networks linked to possibility and renewal versus threat response.
Coaching can assist with reframing performance goals into learning goals to unlock a growth mindset. Balance is important, as performance and learning goals both have roles depending on context and personality factors. Adopting a learning mindset takes patience, self-reflection, and conscious practice over time. Learning goals aligned to purpose and values can maximize fulfilment on the lifelong journey of realising one’s potential.
Further research and experiential learning are required to deepen the understanding of optimal goal setting. But the science indicates that greater emphasis on learning goals benefits both performance and well-being.
Questions and comments:
I hope you’ve discovered some valuable insights here. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments about what works for you and what techniques balance your goals.
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