In my life, I’ve had more than a handful of unrealized goals; I will never play professional basketball, I failed to become an incredible hip hop dancer (never tried I just like the idea), and it’s unlikely that I will ever share a life with Emma Watson (sigh). Based on these lofty goals, it’s easy to understand that simply having a goal is useless.

Goals simply specify a desired end state (i.e. killing the dance floor or this). They don’t necessarily specify WHY the end state is important and they also don’t specify the HOW to reach the end state.

Despite my failure to be a guard for the Indian Pacers, I have reached more than a handful of goals in my life. Months before my latest powerlifting meet I had a big goal, to squat 450 pounds.

In order to hit my goals, I had to add about 30 pounds to my squat. This required grueling training, training I would not have tolerated if I didn’t have my WHY. A person’s WHY for goal attainment is a reflection of the values that they hold.

University of North Carolina Professor Steven Hitlin described values as enduring goals. Values are the WHY for goal attainment. In my case, I want to see how far I can push my body, it’s my way of expressing my value of physical improvement.

That was my WHY. Identifying the WHY can help you persevere when goal attainment inevitably becomes challenging.

The next step is to recognize the specific behaviors that contribute to goal attainment. In most cases, identifying a specific behavior is preceded by selecting a behavior category.

In relation to my goal, the answer is simply, I need to squat. The specific behavior is the program that will help me squat 450. Both WHY and HOW are equally important in reaching any goal.

Identifying the Why and Figuring out the How

Come New Year’s or months before Spring break millions of people set weight loss goals. They might even get as far as deciding exactly what behaviors they want to begin to reach the goals.

Unfortunately many people fail to reach their goal. Most people do not exercise enough and a large percent of weight loss and maintenance efforts come up short. Because of this, I have doubts that goal setters examine the WHY and also plan out the specific behaviors that need to take place.

Identifying the Why

When a person identifies values, the importance of value relevant information as well as motivation increases (Verplanken). In the case of weight loss, this might mean a person is more mindful of eating decisions. They don’t eat three donuts because it would undo the commitment to the goal. The motivation to not eat three donuts also increases.

One simple strategy that I like using for value identification comes from SUNY Stony Brook professor Antonio Freitas. The goal setter continually asks themselves why the goal is important.

Let’s say a person wants to lose 30 pounds. Maybe they feel like they haven’t been able to do activities that they enjoy because of their weight.

Well, why is that important? The person might say that they used to go hiking all the time and don’t feel like they can do this anymore without feeling out of breath or uncomfortable.

Why is it important that they are able to hike without feeling out of breath or uncomfortable?

Maybe they say they are not confident doing these activities anymore because of their weight and the consequences of their increased weight. Why is that important?

Now we get right down to someone’s identity. They might say that they have always considered themselves an adventurous person, always ready to do anything but because of their weight they cannot do this anymore.

Losing 30 pounds wasn’t just about losing 30 pounds, it was about holding on to their identity as an adventurous confident person.

Planning the how

Once a WHY has been identified the HOW needs to be planned. If a person wants to lose weight they could look at a variety of different behavioral categories. They might add structured exercise, plan healthy meals at home, increase amounts of physical activity, reduce calories from alcohol or soda, or increase the amount of fruit and vegetables they eat.

Once a category has been selected, specific behaviors need to be chosen. Behavioral categories reflect intentions (i.e. I intend to eat more fruits and vegetables). Using a self-regulation strategy called implementation intentions, people plan the specifics of the behavior. Implementation intentions specify the when and where a behavior will occur.

If a person decides that they want to start walking more to help them reach their goal they will need to plan the when and where the behavior will occur. Let’s say this person makes the specific behavior of walking 30 minutes each weekday. Their implementation intention might look like this:

The when: I will walk for 10 minutes when I go on my lunch break and for 20 minutes as soon as I get home from work

The where: I will do this on the path outside of my building and around my neighborhood.

For more details on implementation intentions read on here 

Taking Action

Goals are not achieved without struggles and by themselves goals are useless. Having a goal that is based on a value, as well as concrete plan can strengthen motivation and guide direction. Pursuing weight loss or exercise goals can be extremely challenging and set-backs are all but certain to occur.

If goals are based on values a person may endure to a greater extent when setbacks occur. Furthermore, setbacks are less likely to happen if specific behaviors are consistently performed.





Freitas AL, Gollwitzer P, Trope Y. The influence of abstract and concrete mindsets on anticipating and guiding others’ self-regulatory efforts. J Exp Soc Psychol 40: 739-752, 2004.

Hitlin S & Piliavin JA. Values: Reviving a dormant concept. Annu Rev Sociol. 30:359-393, 2004.

Verplanken B, Holland RW. Motivated decision making: Effects of activation and self-centrality of values on choices and behavior. J Pers Soc Psychol 82(3): 434-447, 2002.