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Is setting goals a waste of time?

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Do you write your goals on paper, or just keep them in your head?

Do you even bother with goals?

It’s the beginning of a new year. We’re starting fresh, committing to change some bad habits, and adopting some new ones…blah, blah, blah.

I get it. Every coach, motivational speaker and anyone with a blog or social media platform is shouting the same stuff: “it’s a new year, time to set some goals”. Candidly, I believe much of this lands on deaf ears. And further, I believe people are numb to these types of messages.

And that’s too bad.

Because the reality is, without goals, you meander by default. Read that again and consider through a little self-reflection if you would consider yourself someone who lives by default, or one of design and intention. It’s worth thinking about.

Here’s the rub, goal setting works…IF you properly execute on the practice. And that’s a big IF.

Let’s take a closer look.

One often-referenced and talked-about study about goal setting cites observations of a 1953 Yale study. You may have heard of it.

In summary, the study sought to find if the small percentage of participants (3%) who wrote down their goals along with a clear plan, had more success than those who did not write down their goals and those who didn’t have goals at all.

It’s an interesting premise. And one that is often used to support the position of goal-setting. Afterall, as the study reveals, twenty years later the lead group in the study, the group that wrote their goals on paper and had a clear plan, faired best and had generated significantly higher earnings than the other two groups combined. That’s right. The 3% of the goal-setters outpaced the other 97%! Wow! Pretty cool.

There’s just one problem…this study never happened. That’s right, although often used in certain coaching, training and motivational circles…it’s urban legend.

Even so, people who embrace the practice of goal-setting anecdotally support it, and live the practice of writing down specific goals with a relatively high rate of success. Why would they keep doing it if it didn’t work? Short answer…the most successful goal-setters follow a specific framework and discipline that does work.

But is there actually any data to support a framework for goal-setting? Turns out there is. A study was conducted at the Dominican University of California, by psychology professor, Dr. Gail Matthews, that provides some support for goal-setting and a properly executed plan.

In summary, 267 participants were recruited, of which, 149 completed the study.

Each participant was randomly assigned to one of five groups:

· Group 1 was simply asked to think of business-related goals they would like to achieve within the next four weeks

· Group 2, same as Group 1 and also wrote down their goals

· Group 3, same as Group 2 and also wrote down action commitments for their goals

· Group 4, same as Group 3 and also shared their commitments with a friend

· Group 5, same as Group 4 and also sent weekly progress notes to that friend

At the conclusion of the study:

· Groups that added additional initiatives to support their efforts faired better compared to those who simply had a goal in mind:

· 43% of Group 1 either achieved their goals or were at least halfway there

· 62% of Group 4 either achieved their goals or were at least halfway there

· 76% of Group 5 either achieved their goals or were at least halfway there

Dr. Matthews concludes in support of three key coaching tools and practices: writing down goals, action commitments, and accountability.

My take-away: data, no data, empiric studies, or anecdotal reporting, goal-setting works! The key to its success, like most things in business, comes down to proper process and execution.

So, is setting goals a waste of time? Reach out. I’d love to have that conversation with you. And perhaps together we can disprove the notion.


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