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What Is Goal Setting Theory And How Can It Help You?

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Written by Timothy Sykes
Updated 1/10/2023 6 min read

Have you ever heard of Goal Setting Theory? I spoke about this topic at my 1st TEDx Talk in Sydney, Australia (still waiting for it to post online, but here’s my 2nd Tedx Talk posted).  And, while you may not think it applies to you, trust me it does!

Basically, it’s a specific approach to setting goals in a way that will make you more likely to achieve them. This is a concept that began to gain traction in the 1960s and which I believe can augment the teachings of the Tim Sykes Millionaire Challenge.

Here, I’ll offer a brief overview to Goal Setting Theory, then give specific tips on how to make it work for you as a day trader.

What is Goal Setting Theory? 

It all started with the pioneering research of Dr. Edwin Locke in the late 1960s. After spending much time researching goal setting and motivation, he released a 1968 article entitled “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives.”

In this article, Locke stated that employees were motivated by clear goals and appropriate feedback. He went on to say that working toward a goal provided a major source of motivation to actually reach the goal–which, in turn, improved performance.

Locke’s research showed that there was a relationship between how difficult and how specific a goal was and people’s performance of a task. He found that specific and difficult goals led to better task performance than vague or easy goals.

Telling someone to “try hard” or “do your best” is far less effective than specific instructions such as “try to get more than 80% correct” or “concentrate on beating your best time.”  Likewise, having a goal that is too easy is not a motivating force. Hard goals are more motivating than easy goals because it’s much more of an accomplishment to achieve something that you have to work for.

Several years after Locke’s findings, another researcher’s work was able to expand upon it. Dr. Gary Latham studied the effect of goals set in the workplace and his findings supported Locke’s. The inseparable link between goal setting and optimal workplace performance was formed.

Later, Locke and Latham went on to publish a work entitled “A Theory of Goals Setting and Task Performance.”  In this document, they reinforced the need to set specific and difficult goals and they outlined three other characteristics of successful goal setting.

Goal Setting Theory: Why it Matters 

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The information on Goal Setting Theory above probably didn’t surprise you much as you read it. But, actually, this is a great illustration of how pivotal this research was.

Because of Locke and Latham’s work, the idea of using specific goal setting techniques for workplace success has become the standard.

This, of course, begs the question: how will you apply his theory to your own performance goals?

Goal Setting Theory as a trader 

As a trader, here are some of the different ways that you can incorporate Goal Setting Theory into your routine:

Set specific goals. Setting specific goals will help your career in many ways. For one, they keep you motivated. So, when setting goals as a trader, focus on things that really fire you up. Aim big, not small! Nobody’s ultimate dream is “pay off student loans.”  That’s simply a pit stop on the road to what you really want out of life. Set big, lofty goals and the smaller stuff will often fall into place. Specific and meaningful goals will help you use the Goal Setting Theory concept to your advantage.

Set sub-goals. Let me clarify something above. While I am a big believer in setting big, inspiring goals, I also do believe in breaking them down into bite-sized chunks. So, for example, if paying off your student loans or debt is keeping you from getting ahead, paying off those things would absolutely be a sub-goal on your way to realizing your much bigger goal. But, it’s only by setting specific long-term goals that you can break down the steps necessary to reach them.

Create markers for evaluating your performance. As you work toward your goals and gain more experience as a trader, you can use your own past performance as a marker for your productivity moving forward.

For example, say you are successful in 6 out of 10 trades this month. You might try to see how to increase your average to 7 out of 10 the next month. It could be another challenge, but basically, the idea here is to use your past performance to try to streamline and improve in the future. It makes it kind of a fun game and challenge with yourself.

Stay accountable. Whether you’re part of the Tim Sykes Millionaire Challenge team or a long time trader, having a mentor or peers to check in with about your goals can be very helpful. It might be an informal thing or it might be more scheduled: say a five-minute check-in on a weekly basis. If you know that you’ll have to discuss your progress toward your goals with someone on a frequent basis, it increases motivation. You’re more likely to stick to your goals!

Make sure your goals remain inspiring. Be sure to have frequent check-ins with yourself to evaluate your progress toward your goals. But, even more, be sure to stay in touch with how inspiring your goals are. Over time, priorities and desires can shift. Say that you started with a goal of buying a luxury car, but for whatever reason that no longer fires you up. Clearly, you’ll need to change your goal so that it is more aligned with what will keep you inspired. 

For example, while obtaining physical wealth was the most motivating thing for me for a long time, now I am more focused on charity. Give yourself room to adapt.

Employing concepts of Goal Setting Theory can really help to improve your trading career. Not only does it give you something specific to work toward, but it really helps you maintain inspiration and motivation. This is necessary for trading success!

So, please do leave a comment below if Goal Setting Theory now makes better sense to you!

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Timothy Sykes

Tim Sykes is a penny stock trader and teacher who became a self-made millionaire by the age of 22 by trading $12,415 of bar mitzvah money. After becoming disenchanted with the hedge fund world, he established the Tim Sykes Trading Challenge to teach aspiring traders how to follow his trading strategies. He’s been featured in a variety of media outlets including CNN, Larry King, Steve Harvey, Forbes, Men’s Journal, and more. He’s also an active philanthropist and environmental activist, a co-founder of Karmagawa, and has donated millions of dollars to charity. Read More

* Results are not typical and will vary from person to person. Making money trading stocks takes time, dedication, and hard work. There are inherent risks involved with investing in the stock market, including the loss of your investment. Past performance in the market is not indicative of future results. Any investment is at your own risk. See Terms of Service here

The available research on day trading suggests that most active traders lose money. Fees and overtrading are major contributors to these losses.

A 2000 study called “Trading is Hazardous to Your Wealth: The Common Stock Investment Performance of Individual Investors” evaluated 66,465 U.S. households that held stocks from 1991 to 1996. The households that traded most averaged an 11.4% annual return during a period where the overall market gained 17.9%. These lower returns were attributed to overconfidence.

A 2014 paper (revised 2019) titled “Learning Fast or Slow?” analyzed the complete transaction history of the Taiwan Stock Exchange between 1992 and 2006. It looked at the ongoing performance of day traders in this sample, and found that 97% of day traders can expect to lose money from trading, and more than 90% of all day trading volume can be traced to investors who predictably lose money. Additionally, it tied the behavior of gamblers and drivers who get more speeding tickets to overtrading, and cited studies showing that legalized gambling has an inverse effect on trading volume.

A 2019 research study (revised 2020) called “Day Trading for a Living?” observed 19,646 Brazilian futures contract traders who started day trading from 2013 to 2015, and recorded two years of their trading activity. The study authors found that 97% of traders with more than 300 days actively trading lost money, and only 1.1% earned more than the Brazilian minimum wage ($16 USD per day). They hypothesized that the greater returns shown in previous studies did not differentiate between frequent day traders and those who traded rarely, and that more frequent trading activity decreases the chance of profitability.

These studies show the wide variance of the available data on day trading profitability. One thing that seems clear from the research is that most day traders lose money .

Millionaire Media 66 W Flagler St. Ste. 900 Miami, FL 33130 United States (888) 878-3621 This is for information purposes only as Millionaire Media LLC nor Timothy Sykes is registered as a securities broker-dealer or an investment adviser. No information herein is intended as securities brokerage, investment, tax, accounting or legal advice, as an offer or solicitation of an offer to sell or buy, or as an endorsement, recommendation or sponsorship of any company, security or fund. Millionaire Media LLC and Timothy Sykes cannot and does not assess, verify or guarantee the adequacy, accuracy or completeness of any information, the suitability or profitability of any particular investment, or the potential value of any investment or informational source. The reader bears responsibility for his/her own investment research and decisions, should seek the advice of a qualified securities professional before making any investment, and investigate and fully understand any and all risks before investing. Millionaire Media LLC and Timothy Sykes in no way warrants the solvency, financial condition, or investment advisability of any of the securities mentioned in communications or websites. In addition, Millionaire Media LLC and Timothy Sykes accepts no liability whatsoever for any direct or consequential loss arising from any use of this information. This information is not intended to be used as the sole basis of any investment decision, nor should it be construed as advice designed to meet the investment needs of any particular investor. Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future returns.

Citations for Disclaimer

Barber, Brad M. and Odean, Terrance, Trading is Hazardous to Your Wealth: The Common Stock Investment Performance of Individual Investors. Available at SSRN: “Day Trading for a Living?”

Barber, Brad M. and Lee, Yi-Tsung and Liu, Yu-Jane and Odean, Terrance and Zhang, Ke, Learning Fast or Slow? (May 28, 2019). Forthcoming: Review of Asset Pricing Studies, Available at SSRN: “https://ssrn.com/abstract=2535636”

Chague, Fernando and De-Losso, Rodrigo and Giovannetti, Bruno, Day Trading for a Living? (June 11, 2020). Available at SSRN: “https://ssrn.com/abstract=3423101”