Facilitating Successful Behavior Change: Beyond Goal Setting to Goal Flourishing

July 16, 2021 by Coach Training EDU

A Review Summary Part 1

by John Andrew Williams and Britt Fulmer

Citation: Nowak, 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

A coach’s ultimate purpose is to watch their clients achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves. But goals themselves aren’t quite as simple as setting an intention and watching them manifest before your eyes. Research suggests that there are vast differences in how individuals sustain their motivation around behavior change and risk-taking. The good news for coaching clients is that social support and emotion regulation, two core components of the coaching process, are at the center of successful habit change. 

In his paper, Nowak (2017) highlights the difference between goal setting and goal striving. According to Nowak, goal setting is made of two simple components: behavior movement, such as when to start or stop the behavior, and behavior frequency. Goal striving involves setting intentional goals, aligning them with intentional actions and behaviors, and tracking and reevaluating these goals throughout the process. It also requires self-management, or the ability to handle both challenges and positive outcomes as they arise during the process. Both goal setting and goal striving are needed to successfully adopt the behavior change necessary to achieve the goal, a concept known as goal flourishing. 

Nowak discusses the answers to six key questions surrounding the importance of goals. Each one addresses the three previously mentioned components of goals: goal setting, goal striving, and goal flourishing. Part one of our summary addresses all of the nuances of the first key question. 

“What are the key characteristics of goals?”

Difficulty. Previous research called for a balance of difficulty when setting goals. Too difficult, and the goal became too overwhelming and was often abandoned. Too easy, and the goal no longer felt important. SMART goals were developed from this research, suggesting that clients create Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely goals to optimize their chances of goal achievement. However, some research indicates that BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) tend to elicit higher levels of mental acuity. Because these goals involve a more extensive behavior overhaul, individuals tend to dedicate more focus and effort to the endeavor, which drives them to persist through challenges. 

      • Implications for coaches: The research suggests that a balance between large and small goals can be most beneficial. Helping clients dream big initially can help them identify the future self they want to work toward. From there, you can work with your client to adjust their action steps as needed throughout the process.
      Short-term vs. Long-term Focus. Short-term goals, whether the bite-sized pieces of a larger goal or simply shorter, tend to have a higher likelihood of accomplishment. When long-term goals are necessary, it’s the ones without a plan b that are more likely to be seen through.
        Implications for Coaches: Short-term goals that include well-designed steps and actions, along with reliable goal tracking systems and goal sharing, will optimize goal attainment. When clients require long-term goals, breaking them down into small pieces will aid in their plight for goal achievement. 
  • Single Goals vs. Multiple Goals. The research on whether or not to pursue one goal at a time versus multiple goals is a bit mixed. Pursuing numerous goals at the outset of a coaching program can be problematic for any one goal’s attainment, but establishing the behavior change for one goal first and then adding a second goal is achievable. 
    • Implications for coaching: Clients often come to a coaching session to accomplish many things with their lives. Helping them home in on one primary goal to first direct their attention and then working toward that behavior change is a reliable coaching method.
  • Learning vs. Performance Goals. Learning goals involve achieving new skills or talents. They are best leveraged when a specific goal requires the development of a new ability. Performance goals involve achieving a particular standard, such as drinking eight glasses of water a day, and are best leveraged when the client already possesses the skills required to achieve the next performance level.
    • Implications for coaching: As you can imagine, learning goals come with a lot of hidden benefits. Higher levels of self-efficacy and a stronger commitment to goal pursuit are just two of the potential benefits of achieving a learning goal. This is not to say that performance goals are bad. They are also necessary, but being mindful of how clients can pursue learning is a helpful tool for any coach.
  • Avoidance vs. Approach Goals. Unsurprisingly, approach goals are the gold standard. While there may be a time and place for avoidance goals (or goals where clients are trying to avoid something bad), this is usually very rare.
      Implications for coaching: If a client presents with an avoidance goal, challenge them to reframe the goal from an approach orientation. If they want to avoid the frustration of their partner, perhaps they want to approach a goal that involves more deeply connecting with their partner. 

 1 Holmes, A. J., Hollinshead, M. O., Roffman, J. L., Smoller, J. W., & Buckner, R. L. (2016). Individual differences in cognitive control circuit anatomy link sensation seeking, impulsivity, and substance use. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36, 4038 –4049. http://dx.doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3206-15.2016

2 Chiaburu, D. S., Van Dam, K., & Hutchins, H. M. (2010). Social support in the workplace and training transfer: A longitudinal analysis. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 18, 187–200. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1111/j.1468-2389.2010.00500.x

3 Lawton, R., Conner, M., & McEachan, R. (2009). Desire or reason: Predicting health behaviors from affective and cognitive attitudes. Health Psychology, 28, 56 –65. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013424

4 Nowak, 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

5  Collins, J. (1999). Turning goals into results: The power of catalytic mechanisms. Harvard Business Review, 77, 70 –82, 184

6 Fogg, B. J. (2012, July 12). Fogg Behavior Grid [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.behaviorgrid.org/

7 Schunk, D. H. (2001). Social cognitive theory and self-regulated learning. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 125–151). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

8  Shin, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2016). How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Making, 135, 1–9. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.003

9 Harkin, B., et. al.. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 198 –229. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000025

10 Nowak, 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

11 Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5–12.

12 Seijts, G. H., Latham, G. P., Tasa, K., & Latham, B. W. (2004). Goal setting and goal orientation: An integration of two different yet related literatures. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 227–239.

Let's stay connected image

Let's stay connected

Follow us

Facebook linkInstagram linkTwitter linkYoutube linkPinterest LinkLinkedin link


To provide life coach training that changes lives, launches careers, and promotes human flourishing.

Logo footer


PO Box 2021

Hood River, Oregon 97031

NBHWClogo logoACTP logo