Let your goals guide and your small habits enable you to reach them!

Continuing the Year of Behaviour Change

Continuing our Behaviour Change year, here at IMA International I will be focusing on the meso level of behaviour change in this article. Namely on how to set goals; start building good habits and link these together. 

As someone who has been setting long-term (5 years) and mid-term (1 year) goals since the age of 16, writing letters and setting small reward events to my future self, the Goal Setting Theory of behaviour change is one that is very close to my heart. However, it has also become evident to me that only goal setting will not lead to results. It will require developing and following good habits that will create capability. 

I hope that the next few lines will help and inspire you to take a step towards self-awareness and reflection on how you set your goals and also to start new habits to achieve your aspirations. 

Set your goals: be realistic or set them as high as you can imagine? 

Regardless of setting goals on the personal or professional level it is something that most of us do. In general, as human beings, we spend more time thinking about our goals and future than thinking about our present and past together.  This is also pushed by the always busy and running culture of cities, workplaces and the pressure put down on us by society implying that you always need to be doing something.  

The Goal Setting Theory of Behaviour Change fits nicely in the rush of the world. It focuses on how setting conscious goals or intentions regulate behaviour or task performance and explains how performance can be moderated by a number of factors including the level of commitment, the importance of the goal, levels of self-efficacy, feedback and task complexity. It also explains the relationship between goals and satisfaction and how goals act as mediators of incentives. 

Based on this theory here are 3 points that I would like to highlight to guide you when you are thinking about setting your goals that will influence your behaviour: 
1. Goals are good, so don`t be afraid to think about them even if they are going beyond what is realistic 

This is because goal performance is influenced by goal difficulty and specificity. Therefore, setting difficult goals will lead to better performance as they will require more effort. Goals affect behaviour through different mechanisms.  

  • They have a directive function that helps to focus on what matters, and an energising function to drive the effort that is invested in task performance. 
  • Goals influence persistence, which means if no time limit is put upon goal attainment, difficult goals prolong the effort that people will put into goal attainment. 
  • Goals stimulate the use or discovery of task-relevant knowledge and strategies. People will draw on their relevant knowledge and skills automatically and will seek improvement. 
2.  After setting goals the task performance or behaviour will be moderated by several internal and external factors, so be prepared that it is not always the smoothest ride 

Such factors include the commitment to the goal based on the perceived importance of the goal and the individual’s belief of being able to attain it. Feedback on the progress towards the goal, external incentive and the inclusion of personal goals also influence and moderate behaviour and performance. Lastly, task complexity as an influencing factor will moderate performance and might require the individual to set proximal or short-term goals or develop new skills and strategies. 

3. Goals will serve a reference point for satisfaction or dissatisfaction 

Based on the theory people who achieve the set goal will be satisfied while those who do not will be dissatisfied. At the same time those who set high goals and achieve them will be the least satisfied as their reference point for satisfaction is much higher. Hence, they will be trapped in a satisfaction paradox.  

Do you set your goals for WHAT you are trying to achieve or WHO you want your future self to be?

While the Goal Setting Theory explains that our behaviour and task performance is interlinked with setting goals regardless of them being realistic, ambitious or both: focusing on small habits brings in a different perspective to drive behaviour change.

Although James Clear in his book of Atomic Habits discusses that achieving a goal only leads to momentary change and happiness opposed to establishing and following atomic, small habits, they can work well together.

Let your goals guide and your small habits enable you to reach them! Meso Behaviour Change. Three Layers of Behaviour change: Outcomes, Processes, and Identity.
Let your goals guide and your small habits enable you to reach them! Meso level behaviour change. Outcome- based and Identity-based habits.

Establishing a good system, that consists of small habits and processes and eliminating bad ones, will help to build consistency and drive impact (almost on auto pilot) for the long-term self.

According to James there are 3 layers of behaviour change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, and a change in your identity. While setting goals we tend to focus on the outcome layer, on WHAT we would like to achieve. Then we try to write down processes to make this happen which then will result in us changing our identity. However, it needs to start the other way around: with setting a desired identity and asking WHO you would like to be, then thinking of the processes that will make this happen which then will drive the outcome layer.

To start this:

1. Decide the type of person you want to be by setting WHO you would like to become as a goal

2. Prove this to yourself with small wins through creating and following habits

The two different approaches to behaviour change on the meso level are quite nice complements to one another. Whilst goals are important to drive task performance and direct behaviour, they are dependent on different factors and can lead to dissatisfaction or momentary happiness. In the meantime, habits create consistency overtime and can enable us to complete tasks on autopilot. Yet, they need to be put into context and be driven by a “goal identity”.

All in all, no ship has ever followed the North Star on the ocean in a straight line and for some captains it might take a longer journey. However, deciding on WHO that person will be when you reach the North Star and how you steer the wheel with your habits will make the ride joyful and motivational.

If you have any stories/tips that you would like to share regarding behaviour change, used either in projects you have done or that has been guiding your personal practices, we would love to hear from you!


Clear, J., 2018. Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin.

Michie, S.F., West, R., Campbell, R., Brown, J. and Gainforth, H. (2014) ABC of behaviour change theories. Silverback publishing.

James Clear (n.d.) 30 Days to Better Habits: A simple step-by-step guide for forming habits that stick, Pictures, Available at:

TEDX Talks (2014) How to motivate yourself to change your behavior | Tali Sharot | TEDxCambridg, Available at:

TEDX Talks (2017) How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals | Stephen Duneier | TEDxTucson, Available at:

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