Will Setting Goals Help or Hinder Your Life Achievement?

By Duff McDuffee on November 9th, 2012 1

I suspect that the future of personal development is being born right now, but not in the sophisticated online marketing scams techniques of some bloggers and ebook writers. No, the future of personal development is being born primarily in social psychology and neuroscience journals. My hope for the future is that the next generation of personal development readers, raised on Snopes and Wikipedia will scream out [citation needed] whenever a claim is made or “a study” is referenced. The Age of Information has arrived. Self-help books written B.G. (Before Google) will shock future generations with how confidently wrong they were, how they made broad even universalized claims with only anecdotal evidence. Or at least I hope this will be the case.


Just today Guardian columnist and self-help critical author Oliver Burkeman wrote an interesting piece for Fast Company, entitled Why Setting Goals Could Wreck Your Life. He points out that the oft referenced “1953 Yale Goals study” which allegedly concluded “the 3 percent of graduates with written goals had amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97 percent combined” is an urban legend.

That’s right–the study never existed. Nobody can find any reference to it existing.

It bears repeating again: there was no 1953 Yale goals study. This is a myth, period.

“But I heard Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Brian Tracy all reference it! It must exist.”

Nope. It doesn’t. Here’s a statement from Yale.

Question: Where can I find the Yale study from 1953 about goal-setting?
Answer: It has been determined that no “goals study” of the Class of 1953 actually occurred. In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one’s goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period. The secretary of the Class of 1953, who had served in that capacity for many years, did not know of the sudy, nor did any of the fellow class members he questioned. In addition, a number of Yale administrators were consulted and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study. There was no relevant record, nor did anyone recall the purported study of the Class of 1953, or any other class.

Nor was there any such study at Harvard or any other Ivy League school. A lie repeated often enough is still not true, and in the Age of Information is easily refuted by doing a bit of Googling.

That said, psychology has been seriously involved in studying goals for over 50 years. I have just begun to dive into the literature, and it is fairly complex. One of the key elements I have taken away thus far is the distinction between a goal intention and an implementation intention (see this excellent meta-analysis “Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of Effects and Processes,” Gollwitzer and Sheeran 2006).

A goal intention is “I intend to reach Z!” It is literally just a stated intention of one’s outcome. An implementation intention is the where, when, and how one intends to reach one’s stated outcome, phrased as an if-then plan like “If I’m in goal-relevant context Y, I will initiate goal-directed behavior X!”

One example used in the literature is this: say I intend to be more physically active during the day in order to lose weight. The goal intention is “I intend to lose weight.” But an implementation intention is not clear yet. So let’s say I choose walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. So the implementation intention is thus “If I’m standing in front of an elevator, I will take the stairs instead!”

Got it? Good. So here’s the not-so-surprising finding from the research: when people just set a goal implementation, they are not as likely to achieve the goal as compared to when people also set an implementation intention. In other words, making a specific plan increases one’s chances at success more than just stating a specific goal.

It makes sense, but like many psychology findings that seem obvious, you are probably not implementing this finding as fully as you could, and probably even have sometimes thought that just setting a goal intention was enough when it clearly didn’t work.

For instance I currently have an overly long beard due to laziness. As I was driving I thought to myself, “I need to cut my beard.” That is the beginnings of a goal intention. But then I caught myself, because I had set this goal intention many times in the past few weeks and done nothing about it. So I took a moment to create an implementation intention, specifying the how, what, and where: “I intend to cut off my beard. If it’s Saturday (tomorrow) and I’m about to take my morning shower, I will get the clippers and razor out and chop off my beard and shave.” Then I added a bit of mental rehearsal and linked the visual cue of seeing what I see as I go into the bathroom with a visual image of myself chopping off my beard. All this took about 2 minutes time to do, but now I have a very specific plan.

So will goals help or hinder your life achievement? The answer is that they will most likely dramatically increase your life achievement–especially if you add implementation intentions.

Burkeman points out an important aspect of setting and working to achieve goals however in his article, which is that of committing to one goal and plan and having unintended side-effects from doing so. Does that mean goals could wreck my life? Maybe, but it’s probably not goals themselves (in the broad sense in which psychologists use the term). It may even be lack of having enough goals that is the problem.

For instance, Burkeman says, “Applied to the personal realm, it might mean, for example, achieving the financial wealth you dreamed of at the expense of your personal relationships: attaining your goals at the expense of ruining your life.” I think that’s a particularly good example. This excellent summary of some positive psychology literature having to do with money and happiness lends support to the notions that to be optimally happy, “Being richer will not necessarily make you happier,” “Avoid conspicuous consumption,” “Spend on others, especially people you are close to [vs. yourself only],” and “Don’t think too much about money. It will impair your savoring ability. It’s also bad for your family life,” among other things.

Saying you shouldn’t set written goals and implementation intentions is not exactly correct though. You may indeed have wealth and career goals, but these should be prosocial and secondary to relationship and yes, virtue-based goals if you want to optimize happiness. Anything else is irrational.

The problem of unintended consequences may also be due not only to setting anti-happiness goals but to not setting enough goals, or incomplete goals. If you don’t include your relationships in your goal intentions, then it is quite possible to ignore relationships in favor of pursuing wealth, especially if feedback is ignored (e.g. complaints from your partner or children that you are distant, don’t spend enough time together, etc.).

Integrating feedback and setting and adjusting goals based on feedback may be able to offset problems with unintended consequences (but I’m not aware of any research for or against this statement at this time, only anecdotal evidence–though my knowledge of the literature is that of an interested amateur at best). In addition, the literature of implementation intentions shows that having one specific plan does not backfire, even though we might think that it could through being rigid (see Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006). It’s also important to note (again from Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006) that implementation intentions are effective across a variety of goal domains, not just laboratory tasks as Burkeman critiques (“In most artificial studies of goal setting, participants are faced with a single task or simple set of tasks”). That’s the beauty of meta-analytic studies–they give a big picture overview, which in this case shows that implementation intentions are effective across multiple types of goals.

In any case, I have more hope than ever that this problem of unintended consequences can and/or will be (if it isn’t already) studied and indeed solved by the psychological scientific community. What I think we need is less speculation and more non-scientists diving into the research and trying to find out what those academics have already discovered.

My current view is that goals are inherent to how human beings function and thus aren’t going away any time soon. Our goals should be oriented towards pro-social and virtuous ends (which will also optimize happiness as a side-effect), be accompanied by if-then plans (including for when things go wrong), integrate relevant feedback, and be sufficiently flexible. Perhaps it is easier said than done however, which is why I continue to comb the psychology and neuroscience literature as well as develop practical methods that can hopefully help people to increase their chances at successful goal achievement, without wrecking their life.

If you want to learn to use implementation intentions, I recommend you set this goal intention and meta-implementation intention right now:

Goal intention: I intend to use implementation intentions to reach my goals!
Implementation intention: If I set a goal intention, I will also think of a specific implementation intention that specifies the where, when, and how I will act to achieve my goal!

UPDATE 11/10/2012
Implementation intentions work!
beard, no beard



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