APA Journals Article Spotlight®

Summaries of recent APA Journals articles
photo of stack of magazines

September 27, 2017

Beyond Goal Setting to Goal Flourishing

Cover of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research (small)Goal setting and the initiation of new behaviors and sustaining them over time is particularly challenging for most individuals. Yet, we are all creatures of habit.

In fact, based on experience-sampling diary studies using both student and community samples, approximately 45% of everyday behaviors tend to be repeated in the same location almost every day. However, common myths — "practice makes perfect", "it takes only 20-days to form a new habit," or "once successful people start a goal, they never quit" to name just a few — still exist.

A new review article published in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research by Kenneth Nowack explores the behavioral gap between goal intentions and goal success.

The article addresses six key questions:

  1. What are the key characteristics of goals?
  2. If goal intentions aren't generally effective to facilitate successful behavior change, what works better?
  3. When are people most motivated during goal pursuits?
  4. How long does it actually take to form a new habit?
  5. Is quitting ever a good thing in goal pursuits?
  6. Does practice make perfect (or is there an upper limit)?

Not all people who are self-aware and motivated will successfully change behavior or become more effective. In a recent comprehensive review of executive coaching studies, nearly all investigating the impact of coaching on goal attainment were found to have positive results as well as a significant association with enhancing self-efficacy in clients.

However, very little positive associations appear to support a relationship between executive coaching and actual improvement in job performance.

For practitioners helping to facilitate behavior change, this review article on successful goal accomplishment will provide an individual change model (Enlighten, Encourage, and Enable) to guide coaching and learning transfer following training.

Enlighten, Encourage, and Enable individual change model

Enlighten, Encourage, and Enable individual change model

Wanting to change, often observed as stating intentions through goals, doesn't necessarily ensure nor predict successful change. Motivated clients with a readiness to change will have the greatest success translating stated goals into practice plans.

Research supports using "If-Then" goal implementation intention methods with clients maximizes goal striving, completion and success. The "if" part of implementation intentions refer to the trigger or cue for implementation of the desired behavior and can be existing habits, time or specific situations such as meetings with others and the "then" is the specific behavior to modify (one time, sometimes or all the time).

Finally, this review article counters the urban myths that "practice makes perfect" and "it's never good to quit a goal once you start". Deliberate practice is merely a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for skill competence and significant performance improvement, whether behavioral or mental. Current research suggests that new behaviors can become automatic, on average, between 18 to 254 days (median is 60 days), but it depends on the complexity of what new behavior a client is trying to put into place, as well as their personality.

According to several studies, quitting ("folding") may be a better coping strategy for the physical health and psychological well-being of clients when facing unattainable goals.

In summary, practitioners should be careful about adopting urban myths that have been popularized in bestselling books and blogs about how to translate insight and motivation in clients into successful behavior change. Habit and behavior change is hard, but with some insight and techniques from recent studies, helping clients move from goal intentions to successful completion can be done.


  • Nowack, K. (2017). Facilitating successful behavior change: Beyond goal setting to goal flourishing. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(3), 153–171. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000088

Return to APA Journals Article Spotlight homepage

Note: This article is in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology & Management topic area. View more articles in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology & Management topic area.