Two Ways of Setting Goals…..Which is More Likely to Lead to Success?


iStock_000019759986LargeBy:  Steve Martin

Are you one of the many people who start the New Year off with a list of resolutions?  Does this list look remarkably similar to last year’s?  Are you also one of the many people likely to break these resolutions before the end of January? 

 Then I have some good news from research done by persuasion scientists…..It may not be your fault!

 New research finds that traditional approaches to goal achievement which advocate setting a single and specific goal like losing a certain amount of weight each week or saving a particular amount of money might actually backfire on you.

 Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers Maura Scott and Stephen Nowlis show that we’re much more likely to re-engage with a goal if, rather than setting a single, specific numbered goal (e.g. lose 3 pounds a week) we set a goal with a high-low range that averages the same (e.g. lose 2 – 4 pounds a week) instead.

 In one of their studies, half the participants at a Weight Watchers club were assigned a high-low range goal e.g. ‘lose 1 – 3 pounds each week’.  The other half we assigned a single number goal e.g. ‘lose 2 pounds each week’ for a total of 10 weeks. Aside from this small change in goal, all the other activities the groups took part in; such as healthy eating classes and good exercise regimes, remained the same.

Weight Control

At the end of the 10 week period, the researchers measured each group’s performance.  They measured the amount of weight each group lost, as well as their willingness to re-engage in another 10-week program. Although there wasn’t much difference in terms of weight loss between the groups (during the first three weeks, those in the high-low range group lost an average 2.67 lbs compared to 2.2 lbs in the single number goal) the effect that having a high-low range goal on persuading dieters to stick to the program was huge. Those dieters assigned a high-low range goal were 60% more likely to enroll in another 10 week program at the end of the study.

 Diet club leaders and health club managers take note. As any nutritionist will tell you, it is sustained weight loss over time that matters most and so the shift from setting a specific goal to setting a high-low goal, while seemingly small, could make an important difference when persuading folks to remain committed to their goals.

 So why are people more likely to re-connect with a previous goal if it is less specific, rather than more specific?

High five!

 Well there are two factors that primarily influence whether someone will pursue a goal or not; 1) How challenging the goal is and 2) How attainable it is. People need to feel sufficiently challenged so that they feel a sense of accomplishment, but only to the extent that there is a realistic possibility they can achieve the goal. Unlike single number goals, where you have to pick a number that is either relatively attainable, relatively challenging, or compromise somewhere in-between, high-low range goals have the advantage of engaging both these factors.

 Let’s look at how this might also apply when reconnecting to your business goals.

 The next time you have the task of calling a long list of names you collected at last week’s Expo, you might find yourself more motivated to complete the task if you set yourself a high-low range goal e.g. call 20 – 30 of them by the end of the week, rather than a more specific goal of making 25 calls. The same could also be true when it comes to motivating others. Managers who traditionally set single goals for their sales reps, call centers or customer service staff, might find that they can keep their teams more focused on those goals and motivated for longer, if they set high-low goals instead.

Source:   Scott, M. L., & Nowlis, S. M. (2013). The Effect of Goal Specificity on Goal Reengagement. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(3), 444–459

Questions for discussion: 

  1. What high-low goals have you seen set for this year?
  2. What high-low goals have you set for others?
  3. What high-low goals have you set for yourself?





  • Mark

    Thank you for this post Steve! The specificity of a goal-target is routinely emphasized as a criteria for success in achieving-sustaining behavioral change. This is very helpful, pragmatic information that challenges that widely held view. Perhaps we should be emphasizing a specific range that on the low-end assures a greater likelihood of success and on the high-end assures sufficient challenge. Love the posts-thank you.

    Mark Pettus

    • Steve_Martin

      Thanks for posting your comment Mark I appreciate you taking the time to read the IIR. Best, Steve

  • Jim Wiltens

    While the “goal range” may be more conducive to attainment within the range, it is still specific. What would have been the results of the study if the participants had made a general goal to simply “lose weight.” Specificity is still a part of the study but covers more attainment points. I do like the idea of a range of specificity and will use it in the next program I conduct on goal setting.

  • 田波

    Thank you for this post

  • Arijit Banerjea

    Hi Steve. This is one of those things that you can put to use straight away! Being a coach and consultant I can see multiple applications of this for my clients. I will try this out and comment on how this worked out.
    Thanks for the insight!

    • Steve_Martin

      And thank you for your comment Arijit.
      Cheers, Steve M.

  • Roger Hope

    Last August, after being advised by my doctor that i should lose weight with no specific advice on diet that I wasn’t following already; purely by chance I set myself a high low goal (1-1.5 Lbs per week). I’ve manged to hit this just about every week since except over the holiday period. I’m now back on my self-designed diet and shedding the excess. I now understand one of the reasons why! Thanks for all the posts – they’re always interesting and I have used many of them in my work as a trainer.

    • Steve_Martin

      Great to hear that it worked for you Roger. Thanks for reading IIR. Steve

  • Kate Atkin

    Hi Steve, I love this simple idea and it rings so true with goals I have set myself in the past. Will be applying it immediately and sharing the idea. Thank you.

  • Randy Zeitman

    Love any article with citations! Thanks for the extra work!

    I somehow think it can be real simple — people who are good at goal setting should be more specific and people who are not (who will tend to have less predictable results) should have a wider range.

    It’s just like a arrow at a target … if you’re good you expect yellow 9/10 … otherwise you’re better off calling any of the inner three out of ten as a victory.

    (as Roger states below … the moral being … pick ‘sweet spot’ goals … ones that you are sure won’t be easy AND will have you feeling good if you hit them (NOT feeling that you didn’t try hard enough).

    ‘Goal Satisficing’ I’d call it.

    • Steve_Martin

      Randy. Goal Satisfying. I like that term a lot. Steve M.

      • Randy Zeitman

        Please hire me to write a guest column in your newsletter about it!

  • Jacob Share

    This reminds me of a project management best practice that I started applying a few years ago. At the beginning of a project, business owners want an estimate of a delivery date. However, that’s the single worst moment to commit to such a date because the entire project is ahead of you with all its unknowns. So, based on the project team’s estimate, you give a date range. As the project advances and your vision of the remaining work improves, you update and (hopefully!) narrow your estimated date range of delivery.

    • Steve_Martin

      Jacob, that makes so much sense. A good tip for Project managers too! One I may actually use myself. Thanks for posting your comment. Steve

      • Jacob Share

        I’m not %100 certain but I think I learned that from Steve McConnell’s “Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules”.

  • Carole

    I suspect there may be an additional reason hi-lo range goals work better. If you set a specific value goal and “fall off the wagon” at some point, you may feel like “I’m not going to achieve the goal now anyway, so why bother continuing to try?” With a hi-lo range goal, you may be more focused on what you can still salvage. Even if you can’t reach the hi number, or even the midpoint, you still may be able to squeak through at the low number and you’ve still met the goal as stated!

    • Steve_Martin

      You are exactly right Carole. The hi-lo goal affords elements of both challenge and potential for attainment. Thanks for your comment. Steve

  • Blake Willis Tiggemann

    I found this article very helpful! I have been trying to develop ways to help our clients realize their financial goals and kept running up against the fact that goals can be hard to stick with. This provided great insight that I plan on implementing from here on out when it comes to goal strategies!
    Thanks Steve!

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