Do Goals Actually Help You Succeed?

Updated: December 30, 2011

Brett Jarman

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Sharpen your pencils and dust off the journal - it's time for the annual goal fest. Time to get ready for the impending New Year (or not). Corbett reminds us in a blog entry this week that sometimes setting goals can work against us.

So why do we do it? For decades now, goal setting has been a cornerstone of personal development. I first got a taste of it back in 1990(ish) when my wife and I had a brief Amway moment. Back then Zig Ziglar was the hero of the hour and his books and tapes were key tools of the trade. He, and thousands of others since, touted a now well worn story of a university study on goal achievement.

'The study' reportedly originates from Yale (Harvard in some versions) and focusses on the class of 1953 ('79 in some versions). It apparently found that 10 years after graduation, the 3% of graduates who wrote down their goals when they finished university had accumulated more wealth than the other 97% combined.

The study has been offered up time and again as compelling evidence that writing down your goals produces results and has thus inspired millions to do so.

But Is It Real?

It turns out that the study probably never happened and no-one seems to know who actually started the apparent myth.

Let's assume for a moment though that the study did actually happen and the conclusions are generally as reported:

  • The conclusion implies that writing/setting the goal is the primary cause and achieving the goal is the effect. Would that particular 3% have achieved the outcome even if they hadn't written them down? In other words, was goal achievement already a characteristic of those people and writing down goals simply an expression of that trait?
  • The results simply say the top 3% were wealthier than the rest but don't actually reference the goals themselves. Were the goals only financial? Were there any goals that they didn't achieve? If so, what percentage? And though they were wealthy, was that the only measure of success? Were they happy? What was the quality of their relationships, health, personal and spiritual fulfilment?
  • Though the 97% wasn't as wealthy as the 3%, does it necessarily mean that the 97% didn't achieve any of their goals in life or were less fulfilled than that 3%?
We tend to overlook these flaws because the conclusion matches we want to believe - that there really is a simple key to achieving what we want (the same thing that made The Secret tremendously successful in more recent years).

There has however, been a subsequent study from Dominican University that concludes "writing one’s goal enhances goal achievement." The study claims to be 'sound scientific research' but is flawed on a number of counts, including that it only ran for four weeks and that the 'success' of the participants was assessed subjectively by the participants themselves, some of whom would have had a natural bias to talk themselves up to relieve 'performance anxiety'.

No doubt if someone was sufficiently motivated, they could compile a study that shows 97% of all written goals are never achieved (wouldn't surprise me if it was more than 99%). From that, a university researcher could conclude that goal setting doesn't work. But again, they'd be wrong, because goal setting does work - most of us have some experience of this. Most of us also have some experience that it doesn't work. Therein lies the problem.

Results May Vary

Surveys and studies on such things are meaningless. Even personal past experience can be meaningless because it's variable to the point that we can't even predict our own outcomes reliably. It's like using a survey to decide what type of ice cream we want. It depends on a number of factors, all of which are personal, circumstantial and even how we are feeling in that particular moment.

If goal setting is working for you, it's working for you. If it's not, it's not. If it's making you go crazy, causes anguish, or is tiresome and boring, it's probably not working. It doesn't mean that it won't work in another case though.

Sometimes it works to be detailed, sometimes it works to be vague. Sometimes we're active and creative, sometimes we're passive. And sometimes we just go with the flow of life and achieve outcomes we never even considered.

What doesn't work though is goal setting for the sake of goal setting.  Corbett sums it up nicely in his post,

"Goal setting can be useful, but it can also be taken to extremes that become counter-productive."

How about you? Are you setting goals for next year or going "no goal"?

image: tworubies

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