The Goal Hierarchy 


When setting goals, many people solely focus on one or two major goals they’d like to accomplish no matter how broad or specific those goals may be. In a recent Stronger By Science podcast episode, Eric Trexler and Greg Nuckols discuss a newly studied way of setting goals through a goal hierarchy. In this 3-tiered hierarchy you create superordinate goals, intermediate goals, and subordinate goals that all work in support of each other. In this blog we’ll discuss the differences between these three types of goals and how goal setting in this format will help you reach your goals in the new year. 

Superordinate Goals 

Superordinate goals are the top-tier, overarching goals that are very common during the first month of the year. Goals like ‘I want to travel more’ or ‘I want to be healthy’ are examples of superordinate goals. Despite being very vague and ungrounded, Eric Trexler explains that these goals are identity and value-based goals. “[Superordinate goals] kind of anchor us. They provide the why to why we’re pursuing a goal,” Eric states. These types of goals provide us with a foundation of values and identity-markers that allow us to keep pursuing our goals in times of low-motivation. 

Intermediate Goals 

Intermediate goals are less general goals that provide more direction when pursuing superordinate goals. Using the healthy example above, Eric states that intermediate goals might be getting more sleep, avoiding stress, and eating a healthy diet. While not incredibly specific, these goals provide clearer paths to the overarching superordinate goals. 

Subordinate Goals

Subordinate goals are smallest and lowest on the hierarchy, however, they are the goals we’re more likely to pursue on a day-to-day or weekly basis. These are the actionable goals that transform the values of becoming healthy and traveling more to working out twice a week and booking a couple flights for upcoming vacations. These are the goals that most people think of when approaching behavior change. While these goals are important and create a more direct pathway to achieving intermediate goals, without putting them into context with it’s superordinate value, Eric explains they may become hard to stick with over time. 

The Importance of the Goal Hierarchy 

This goal hierarchy establishes a new and more complete way of approaching goal setting and behavior change. Without superordinate goals, the daily steps needed to reach them may seem unimportant or arbitrary and may be discontinued due to lack of direction and motivation. On the other side of the spectrum, superordinate goals without the actionable, day-to-day steps (subordinate goals) are simply just values and identity-markers that have not been applied yet. This showcases the importance of having well-rounded and structured goals as opposed to one or two random and possibly-specific goals. 


Sources and Additional Articles: 

For a more detailed discussion on the topic of the goal hierarchy, listen to the Stronger by Science podcast titled, ‘Goal Setting and Behavior Change’ by Eric Trexler and Greg Nuckols. Also read the study cited in the podcast by Höchli and colleagues to learn more about the benefits of superordinate goals.

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