By Sylvia Raskin
Most traditional goal setting methods, such as SMART goals, overvalue the importance of setting goals without offering a reliable process to make progress. These tools or programs also tend to overemphasize goal-achievement as the ultimate marker of success. Even for someone who regularly completes goals they set, the time spent accomplishing goals is very small compared to the time spent working towards them.
While tools similar to SMART goals help think about what might happen, they do not incorporate what does happen: surprises or roadblocks along the way. Without offering ways to make progress on goals, especially long-term visions, it is very easy to feel stuck, stop pursuing your goals, or make only minor progress. If participants in poverty-assistance programs are viewed with a stereotypical “culture of poverty” mindset, the difficulty of achieving long-term goals is mininterpreed as laziness or incapability. We can change this narrative by accurately demonstrating how people make progress on their goals, improving goal setting programs, and taking action on the realities of financial insecurity and systemic inequities.
In our research with people in an apprenticeship training program, we heard these three bright spots that traditional goal setting programs miss.
- People have numerous and interconnected goals that range from employment and savings to family and independence (Figure A). Many goal setting programs overemphasize the importance of setting goals without devoting much time to developing a process to make progress. The traditional approach overlooks the goals that people already have and how those goals are interconnected. An assumption that shows up is the belief that people in poverty do not have goals or have not considered goal setting, which we found to be untrue.
- A system is vital to making progress towards a long-term vision. Without a system, people struggle to make progress. Staff sometimes implicitly or explicitly suggest participants shrink their goals to fit what the staff person determines to be a reasonable and relevant goal. An underlying assumption is that it is too difficult, specifically for people in poverty, to reach a long-term or large-scale vision, when in fact, it is the process that is broken.
- People are making progress all the time. Because everyone’s progress looks different, it is often overlooked and minimized. Staff may misinterpret that their role in goal setting is to hold participants accountable to their goals and make sure they follow through on action steps. An underlying assumption may be present that people in poverty are lazy and lack follow through, and therefore need someone to be accountable to. Instead, staff can create space for self-reflection, celebration, and conversations that unlock new ideas and strategies.
Figure A: Most Frequent Interconnected Goals (As Named by Participants)
The Innovation: Goal Progress System (GPS)
Using insights from people experiencing poverty and evidence on social connection, growth mindset, and intrinsic motivation, The Prosperity Agenda (TPA) designed a strengths-based goal setting program that we named GPS: Goal Progress System.
GPS offers flexible goal practice exercises, a goal practice book for celebrating progress, and a structure for self and group reflection. The exercises and tools can be facilitated in group education settings, one-on-one, or through self-guided activities. In our initial pilot with two nonprofits, we identified four promising principles of a strengths-based goal practice system in action.
Figure B Participants’ overall rating of GPS: Goal Practice System
Using a 1 to 5 scale, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is Strongly Agree
All Things are Not Equal So People Don’t Have Big or Small Goals
Success in goal setting is typically determined based on the scale and number of achievements, like getting a job, saving $500, or improving your credit score by 30 points. This approach assumes that effort, and systemic conditions, are equal. Replacing achievement with “practice” allows participants to give themselves credit and celebrate the progress they are making, but possibly overlooking. Participants make progress on their goals by looking for 1% improvements, inspired by Atomic Habits by James Clear. 1% improvements such as going to bed 10 minutes earlier or getting a driver’s license, seem small, but can compound into big results such as increased engagement at work or having the documentation necessary to open a bank account. Participants celebrate progress, not just when they achieve a goal.
“When I wrote down my goal – I was distracted with all of my life happening this past week. Definitely self-reflection enabled me to look back and see I made progress.” – GPS Participant
People Maintain Momentum by Adapting Goals to the Pace of Life
People gain momentum by completing “goal practices”–small activities that help us make progress. GPS replaces a static timeline of action steps and due dates, with real-time adjustments and iterative planning. People who give themselves the flexibility to move with the pace of life, are more likely to sustain their goal progress activities.
“When you choose your goals and if you’re having trouble – go back to your [goal practices] – it gives you more options to achieve your goal” – GPS participant
Purpose Taps into People’s Intrinsic Motivation
GPS activities inspire dialogue and reflection that connect our goals to our purpose. When we investigate the reasons why our goals deeply matter to us, we tap into our intrinsic motivation, making goal practice more sustainable over the long term. In many goal systems, people set their goals but rarely look back at them. It is easy to lose interest when goals are tied to external motivations; what we are told we “should” achieve, rather than what we deeply desire.
“That’s what I enjoyed the most – breaking down goals. It’s more motivating. I like how it asked the smaller questions—the what, the why, and the how” – GPS participant
People’s Goals Thrive Through Social Connection
Most goal setting programs do not have a social component. GPS combines engaging group activities to spur discussion and self-reflection, a system to guide individual goal practices, and peer support to celebrate progress. When participants set and practice goals in a social context, they exchange strategies for improving their goal systems, ideas for goal practices, and mutual support for each other’s efforts.
“Everybody has totally different backgrounds but we all worked as a group. [The facilitator] was able to do that through really engaging, fun, and informational activities.” – GPS Participant
GPS Helps People Reach Their Own Long-Term Vision
GPS acknowledges that working towards a long-term vision of success is challenging, but that challenge can be made easier by focusing on goal practices, celebrating progress, and providing mutual peer-support. By offering a flexible goal practice system, people connect what is important to them to real life ups and downs. Instead of directing accountability to program staff, participants tap into their intrinsic motivation and connection to each other. The solution to achieving our long-term visions is not to dream smaller, but to be more trusting, flexible, and connected.
“Everyone has a big end goal, but it’s going to change along the way. I think this process is great. You’re going to achieve more and be more successful” – GPS Participant