Most of us have goals in life, whether they are short-term, like to get a raise at work or start eat healthier, or big, ambitions dreams like starting a successful business or cycling across America. Reaching those goals, however, often proves to be elusive, as we start and stop, talk ourselves out of them the moment we get discouraged, or they just remain whimsical wishes that never leave our brains. But instead of internal and emotional factors, reaching goals successfully is actually more of a science, your success based on factors you can predict and control.
A landmark study at Harvard found some shocking evidence that goal setting correlates with massive success. Of course Harvard business school is the top institution of its kind, and students and professionals who are selected for their MBA program are already the brightest and best in the country. But there were pronounced differences within the Harvard class that made the study on goal setting remarkable.
In 1979, Harvard MBA graduates were surveyed with the question: “Have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?”
Of the Harvard business school graduates interviewed, this is what they found:
84% had no specific goals at all.
13% had goals but they were not committed to paper.
3% had clear, written goals and plans to accomplish them.
The same graduates were tracked down for a follow-up interview in 1989 to gauge how successful they’d become and if that at all correlated to their goal setting 10 years earlier.
The researchers were shocked what they found. Of the same Harvard students originally surveyed:
The 13% of the class who had goals were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84% who had no goals at all.
Even more staggering, the 3% who had clear, written goals were earning, on average, 10 times as much as the other 97%...put together!
Let me highlight that astounding fact another way:
In a group of smart, successful people with no other apparent differences, the men and women who simply thought about their goals earned 200% more per year than those who had no goals!
And for the 3% who actually committed those goals to paper with a plan to reach them, they made 1,000% more.
The breakthrough finding was that when people set clear goals, and most importantly committed them to writing, they went on to achieve, succeed, and earn far more than their counterparts who had no specific goals.
The results were an incredible eureka moment in the science of goal setting and study of the human mind, but surely the achievement of these Harvard goal-setters must be an anomaly?
A psychology professor at Dominican University in California, Dr. Gail Matthews, set to find out when she conducted a study of 267 participants on goal setting. She compared several test groups to see if the findings of the Harvard study stood up to scrutiny. She broke her participants into several groups.
Among them were:
Group 1 thought only about their goals but didn’t commit them to paper.
Group 2 thought about and wrote down their goals.
It went all the way up to Group 5, that not only wrote down their goals, but wrote down action steps they could take to reach them, shared their goals with a supportive friend, and finally, made weekly progress reports to that friend.
Her work concluded that Group 2 – who simply committed their goals to paper - was 42% more likely to achieve them than Group 1.
And what about Group 5, who wrote down their goals, action steps they could take to reach them, shared their goals, and made a weekly progress report?
Incredibly, that group achieved their goals at a 78% higher rate than Group 1.
The most comprehensive research into goal setting took place in 2011, when a mega-analysis combined the findings of 38 smaller studies that took place before. The conclusions of these studies and countless other research into the field of human achievement prove there is a simple formula to successfully achieving your goals, no matter who you are or what your goals:
1) Design specific goals.
Goals that are concrete and laser-focused end up with higher success rates. Interestingly enough, goals that are bigger and more ambitious result in higher performance and success, not less.
2) Write them down.
Committing your goals to writing achieves a lot more than just having a visual reminder. Once they are spelled out on paper (or a computer screen), our minds perceive them as tangible, real-life experiences, not just wishes or dreams, and start acting accordingly.
3) Plan action steps.
It’s critical to plant a flag as the outcome or goal you ultimately want to reach, but it’s also important to map out your strategy to get there. By breaking your goal into smaller steps and planning how you’ll implement them, you’ll have a solid track to run the train of your efforts.
4) Share those with a friend or accountability partner.
One of the most underrated aspects of goal setting is the psychology of group or external support. Having someone to give you feedback and hold you accountable makes a huge difference in goal achievement. In fact, a study by researchers Chhokar and Wallin found that even regular feedback on a person’s progress raised goal performance. But when that feedback ceased, the same subjects suffered a sharp drop in performance.
5) Monitor progress with a weekly report.
On the journey to any goal there are plenty of ups and downs, landmarks and setbacks. Research has demonstrated that measuring and documenting progress along the way, whether daily, weekly, or whatever increment is relevant, helps keeps people on track and pushing forward to reaching their finish line.
There is incredible power in this process, and it doesn’t even really matter what your goals are. Whether you’re trying to earn an extra $50,000 this year, finally lose those extra 20 lbs., or even find the love of your life and get married – this method of achievement through goal setting is proven to work.
But there is a catch, one keystone that all of the studies and scientists found was absolutely essential to achieving any goal. Without this linchpin, the 5 steps are completely useless:
You have to get started.
Yes, it’s that simple – action is the foundation of all goal achievement. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes along the way (you will) or suffer setbacks and obstacles (you probably will). The amazing power of this goal setting science will only work with action, and that’s the part that holds more people back than anything along the way. If you don’t - if you outthink yourself one more time, procrastinate and make excuses, or fail to commit to your own success yet again, you’re almost guaranteed to fall short.
But if you’re part of the 3% who write down their goals, set an action plan, share that, hold yourself accountable, get started and don’t give up, you are statistically nearly 100% guaranteed to succeed.