Defining the “Why” of Your Clients’ Goals

Failing to reach personal and financial goals can be both frustrating and disheartening for your clients. And, to make matters worse, they often realize that they are their own worst enemies when it comes to sabotaging their dreams.  However, research has shown that your clients can dramatically increase their rate of success by first determining a meaningful and internally motivated “why” for each goal pursuit

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a model of human motivation that is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways.  This widely accepted model was initially developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, psychology professors at the University of Rochester, and is now researched and practiced around the world.  They believe that goal pursuit and goal attainment are highly influenced by “the degree to which people are able to satisfy their basic psychological needs as they pursue and attain their valued outcomes.” 

Intrinsically motivated goal pursuits such as those related to personal development, emotional relationships, or community involvement tend to be more rewarding and thus result in higher rates of goal achievement.  That is because these goals are more likely to satisfy our need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. In contrast, extrinsically motivated goal pursuits—such as those aligned with financial gain, image and appearance, or fame and popularity—are less satisfying to these critical psychological requirements and will result in lower levels of goal realization your clients evaluate their goals pursuits based on psychological needs. Click To Tweet

Therefore, taking time to help your clients evaluate their goals pursuits based on psychological needs will increase their awareness of the “why” that underlies each aspiration.  In particular, consciously forming goals that will satisfy their need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy will keep them on course to achieving their dreams. 


As defined by SDT, competence is the need to engage in challenges and to experience mastery or effectiveness. Goals that meet the psychological need for competence will involve activities that allow your clients to explore their interests, increase their knowledge and skills, and foster a sense of accomplishment. 


Relatedness is the need to feel secure, develop intimate relationships, and possess a sense of belonging. Goals that meet this need will engage your clients in activities that increase connections to others, offer opportunities to share knowledge and skills, and allow them to feel that they are a valued member of a defined group (i.e. family, social circle, community, organization).


Autonomy is the need to organize oneself, self-regulate behavior, and avoid external rule or authority. Goals that meet this psychological need will include self-directed activities, cultivate a sense of control, address drives and passions, and strengthen a sense of self. 

In summary, goal pursuits that support your clients’ internal experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness will enhance their persistence, creativity, and and sense of life satisfaction

- Carol Anderson

Note:  For more information about Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and numerous resources, go to  In addition, Daniel Pink’s best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us features SDT and research conducted by Professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan at the University of Rochester.

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