Pushing Through: Effect of Goal Difficulty on Goal Completion

The following psychology study was conducted and written by four students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For any inquiries about the research, please contact the writer of this article.


This experiment was conducted to test the effects goal difficulty had on the completion of a particular goal. The dependent variable measured the goal difficulty in both the high difficulty and low difficulty groups. The independent variables were assigned to two distinct groups of participants. One group was assigned a high difficulty goal of completing thirty push-ups in one minute’s time and the other group was assigned a low difficulty goal of completing a self-determined ‘maximum’ number of push-ups in one minute. We hypothesized that the group of high difficulty participants would complete a greater number of push-ups. Our hypothesis was not proven in this study.


Goal setting theory has been a topic of interest for psychologists throughout the development of their field. Goal difficulty, in particular, has generated a great deal of research, seeking answers to how goal difficulty affects an individual’s performance. Studies of goal difficulty can identify the most effective goals for productivity, helping many different fields and industries. One well-researched theory regarding goal setting is the theory that goal difficulty is positively correlated with performance. For example, athletic trainers can identify the most effective goals for athletes to break their records– Fairall and Rodgers (1997) proved that track and field athletes at a university were more successful in completing high difficulty goals set by their coaches compared to self-set goals.

Research shows that the amount of motivation an individual has, or the self-efficacy of an individual, has an impact on the overall performance of one’s accomplishment of the goal (Locke, E.A. 1990 and Zimmerman, B.J. 1992). How strongly goal difficulty will affect self-application is unknown, but reputable professionals in the field of psychology have conducted studies for such a measure. In a study done by Locke and Latham (1990) the effects of work motivation and completion of work-related goals are outlined in the high performance cycle: if individuals believe they can be successful in completing a given difficult goal, then they will accomplish their goals successfully. This article also mentions, the specific theory being tested in this experiment, goal settings theory. If performance of a task is directly related to the task at hand, it must be consciously determined. According to a multitude of studies, more direct and specific goals are more attainable than broad, unspecific goals. Also, results demonstrated that goals with high standards were likely to produce satisfied and productive workers. These ideas culminate to the accepted theory of difficult, direct goals increasing the likelihood of goal completion (Locke, E.A. 1990). Conversely, low difficulty goals are less likely to be completed, and individuals are less likely to be satisfied with their efforts after completion.

Locke and Latham have done other studies investigating goal setting and the difficulty of goals. In one study, they were testing a model of goal theory that Atkinson proposed. This model found that goals with a more moderate level of difficulty produced the most goal completion versus the easiest and most difficult goals with less goal completion accomplished (Locke, E.A. 2002). However, Locke and Latham found that the hardest and most difficult goals produced the greatest efforts and performances (Locke, E.A. 2002).

Zimmerman, Bandura, and Martinez-Pons’ study “Self-Motivation for Academic Attainment: The Role of Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Personal Goal Setting” provides information on the effect of the independent variable in the study conducted. This study determined how self-efficacy and set goals influenced academics. The findings reflected previously accepted theories, proving the validity of the positive correlation between goal difficulty and performance. In particular, the study found the higher a student’s self-efficacy was, the more likely they were to achieve academically. Alongside this finding, many others support high self-efficacy for students. Its positive benefits on individuals and the goals they set for themselves as well as their interest in learning showed that students were more likely to complete goals that they had set for themselves, regardless of the difficulty (Zimmerman, B.J. 1992).

Our independent variable, established through a high difficulty goal (thirty push-ups in one minute) and a low difficulty goal (number of push-ups done in one minute), should predictably affect the dependent variable of actual performance. Participants given a higher difficulty goal are hypothesized to show better goal performance (more push-ups) than those provided with a low difficulty goal. Should this hypothesis be correct, the research conducted in this experiment will follow the findings provided by previous research. The study of goal setting is applicable across a broad range of organizaitons, especially students furthering their education as higher institutions of learning expect excellence.



A convenience sample of volunteers participated in this study (N=30, 14 males). The ages of participants ranged from 18 to 20 years old (Mage=18.87), and they did not receive compensation for their time.


A test of the effect of goal difficulty on performance, following similar hypotheses (e.g. Locke and Latham et al., 2002) where participants performed push-ups assigned under a high or low-difficulty goal.

To measure the effect of goal difficulty on push-up performance, the number of push-ups completed correctly were recorded under two conditions, either with participants told to perform thrity or as many push-ups as possible in the one minute allotted. Participants then were asked to rate the difficulty of the task they were assigned on a scale of 1 (very easy) to 7 (very hard).


Participants volunteered for this study read and signed the consent form, which gave a brief description of the study along with information regarding their consent. Participants also indicated their gender and age at this time.

Next, participants were randomly assigned to a goal difficulty of easy, do as many push-ups as you can in one minute, or a hard goal difficulty, finish thirty push-ups in one minute.

After the one minute of push-ups, participants were asked what they thought of their task difficulty. Finally, participants were debriefed on the experiment’s theory, procedures, and goals; and thanked for their participation.


To investigate the influence of goal setting on push-ups that can be completed within a time constraint, a one-way (Goal Setting: High Difficulty vs. Low Difficulty) between subjects ANOVA was conducted. It was expected that high-difficulty participants would perform more push-ups than low-difficulty participants. As shown in Table 1, this analysis did not reveal a main effect of goal-setting on the number of push-ups an individual can complete, F(1, 29) = 2.441, p =.129. These data show there was no significant difference in either group’s number of performed push-ups.


The experiment predicted that participants assigned a high-difficulty goal would demonstrate greater goal performance than participants assigned a low-difficulty goal. A push-up test was utilized, and the hypothesis was not supported by its findings. Results show no significant difference in mean push-ups accomplished by high-difficulty and low-difficulty groups, and no significant difference in participant report of test difficulty experienced.

While the hypothesis was not supported, the experiment results were very telling of the push-up experiment itself. The fact that both high and low-difficulty groups, on average, completed almost the same amount of push-ups and reported the same experience of difficulty may imply that there is an averaged level of fitness represented among participants. Whatever that level may be, perhaps there is a physical limit at that particular level which cannot be surpassed—that limit being the rate at which push-ups are done. As both groups had the same time limit of one minute to complete the push-up test, they both performed at approximately the same rate. Despite the difference in goal assignment difficulty, both groups essentially performed the same goal, performing at the same rate within the one-minute time span, explaining the similarities in both groups’ report of how difficult they found their respective goals to be.

Counting the amount of push-ups accomplished was perhaps a poor measure for the experiment, and the experiment’s sample may have limited the results. All participants run were college students at Carolina, limiting the demographic of participants. A larger sample size composed of a wider variety of demographics would produce more valid results. No difficulties arose in push-ups being commonly known or in establishing a standard for technique. Through conducting this experiment, the major strength highlighted is its ability for hindsight.

If there was to be future expansion on the use of push-ups or any other test of physical exertion in relation to goal difficulty and performance, the experiment should address exertion maintained rather than end amount accomplished. One such way is by assigning the high-difficulty group a faster pace than the low-difficulty group. This would enable experimenters to have a greater degree of manipulation over difficulty settings and see a significant difference in the performance of groups. For example, if push-ups were utilized again, the low-difficulty group may receive one minute to maintain a slow pace of push-ups and the high-difficulty group a faster pace. The low-difficulty group will have a more relaxed rate of performance than the high-difficulty group thus allowing them less exertion. This should enable the low-difficulty participants to easily maintain their slow pace for the full-minute time span, while high-difficulty participants should have much trouble accomplishing the same feat. Participant-reported experience of push-up goal difficulty should accurately reflect the differences in push-up rate thus creating a distinction in goal manipulation results.

This experiment seemingly contradicts the assumption that people with higher standards try harder and achieve more. It also suggests that physical exercise is a highly exasperating source of stress for everyone. However, these are premature evaluations. The experiment is flawed due to its ineffective high and low-difficulty conditions for participants. Also, the sampled participants were very similar to one another, so results are limited to their own specific demographics. A better interpretation of this experiment is not in its results but in its methods. Future studies could reference this experiment to help identify flaws and serve as an example of what not to do. That being said, there could be some suggestion from the results that push-ups are just an inherently difficult task. It is possible that, in general, physical exercise is not as an individualized experience as would be required in an experiment seeking to contrast two difficulty settings. Push-ups could be such a deplorable concept to people that regardless of goal difficult established and performance would be minimal, as they would not put forth the effort to achieve their goal.


  • Bandura, A., Martinez-Ponz, M., & Zimmerman, B. J. (Autumn, 1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 663-676. Retrieved from http://jstor.org
  • Latham, G., & Locke E. A. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717. Retrieved from http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  • Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (July, 1990). Work motivation and satisfaction: Light at the end of the tunnel. Psychological Science, 1, 240-246. Retrieved from http://jstor.org
  • Fairall, D. G., & Rodgers, W. M. (1997). The effects of goal-setting method on goal attributes in athletes: A field experiment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19,1-16. Retrieved from http://journals.humankinetics.com
  • Almog, A., Bar-Eli, M., Btesh, Y., Pie, J. S., & Tenenbaum G. (1997). Effect of goal difficulty, goal specificity and duration of practice time intervals on muscular endurance performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 15, 125-135. Retrieved from http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov


Figure 1. Comparison of high and low-goal’s push-ups accomplished, showing no pattern established of either group accomplishing more push-ups than the other


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