How to Achieve Your Goals: Insights from Academic Research
Creating a high-performance culture at work is challenging. It requires each member of the team to set clear goals and consistently meet them.
Goal setting is a business skill that can be developed over time. Learning how to effectively set goals, and teach your team how to do so, can have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of your business.
There are numerous resources online that share best practices for goal setting. However, many of these are anecdotal, or meant for someone in a different function or industry than you.
We’ve compiled three studies that reveal scientifically-proven methods for achieving your goals more consistently. It turns out that writing down your goals, sharing them with friends, setting ambitious goals, and planning backwards are best practices we should all implement.
Table of Contents
- Study 1: Writing Down and Sharing Goals Makes You More Likely to Achieve Them
- Study 2: Setting Ambitious Goals Makes You More Likely to Achieve Them
- Study 3: Planning Backwards Makes You More Likely to Achieve Your Goals
- Bottom Line
Study 1: Writing Down and Sharing Goals Makes You More Likely to Achieve Them
A study by Dominican University of California tested different goal-setting strategies to find the method with the highest success rate. Results were statistically significant: individuals that wrote down goals and shared weekly updates with a friend achieved success at a higher rate than those that did not record their goals.
Dr. Gail Matthews found that more than 70 percent of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement (completely accomplished their goal or were more than 50% there), compared to 35 percent of those who kept their goals to themselves, without writing them down.
The study included 267 research subjects total, and 149 subjects completed the study. 27 subjects were male and 112 subjects were female, with ages ranging from 23 to 72. Subjects were asked to participate from the following countries: Australia, Belgium, England, India, Japan, and the United States. Subject job titles included entrepreneurs, marketers, managers, vice presidents, and directors of nonprofits.
Subjects were asked to set a goal. Some of the reported goals included updating a website, completing a strategic plan, securing a contract, and hiring employees. They were randomly placed into five groups. Each group was tasked with a different goal-setting strategy, as we list below.
|Experiment Group||Goal-Setting Strategy|
|Group One||Subjects were asked to think about a goal, but not write it down.|
|Group Two||Subjects were asked to write down a goal.|
|Group Three||Subjects were asked to write down a goal and commit to an action plan.|
|Group Four||Subjects were asked to write down a goal, commit to an action plan, and share their goal with a friend.|
|Group Five||Subjects were asked to write down a goal, commit to an action plan, and send weekly updates to a friend.|
After four weeks, subjects were asked if they had achieved their goal. Here are the results:
- 43 percent of group one accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal.
- 62 percent of group two accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal.
- 51 percent of group three accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal.
- 64 percent of group four accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal.
- 76 percent of group five accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal.
The team also compared the difference between the group that did not write down their goals and all other groups. As you can see below, 43 percent of subjects that did not write down goals accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal. In contrast, an average of 65 percent of subjects that wrote down goals accomplished at least 50 percent of their goal.
Study 2: Setting Ambitious Goals Makes You More Likely to Achieve Them
A study by Princeton University found that setting ambitious goals and receiving feedback on performance can lead to a higher goal-completion rate. In fact, it proved that people who set more ambitious goals are more likely to accomplish them.
In this study, a total of 80 families were asked to set a goal to reduce their residential electricity consumption for 22 days. All families lived in identical three-bedroom houses in a planned unit development in central New Jersey. Most families sampled were college-educated couples in their early 30s with two children.
Families were randomly placed into four groups. Half of the families in the study received an easy goal: reduce energy consumption by 2%. The other half received a difficult goal: reduce energy consumption by 20%. For the families that received an easy goal, half received feedback on their energy consumption three times a week, and the other half were a control group. Similarly, half the families that received a hard goal received feedback on their energy consumption, and the other half did not.
|Group One||Families were asked to reduce energy usage by 2%, and received performance feedback.|
|Group Two||Families were asked to reduce energy usage by 2%, and did not receive performance feedback.|
|Group Three||Families were asked to reduce energy usage by 20%, and received performance feedback.|
|Group Four||Families were asked to reduce energy usage by 20%, and did not receive performance feedback.|
The results supported the study’s original hypothesis. Families in group three (reduce energy by 20%, and receive feedback on energy consumption) was the only group that used significantly less energy than their control group. The findings suggest that the presence of both a difficult goal and performance feedback is effective in improving chances of success.
Study 3: Planning Backwards Makes You More Likely to Achieve Your Goals
A study by the Association for Psychological Science tested the effectiveness of two goal-planning methods, forward planning and backward planning. Findings showed that backward planning led to increased motivation, better performance, and higher success rates.
|Experiment Group||Goal Planning Method|
|Forward Planning||Planning the steps required to reach a goal in chronological order|
|Backward Planning||Mentally picturing the time when a goal is accomplished, and planning the steps required to reach a goal in reverse-chronological order.|
In the study, 83 students were given a fixed number of activities to prepare for their final exam. 45 participants were asked to plan their activities in chronological order. 38 participants were asked to plan their activities in reverse-chronological order.
The study found that backward-planning students performed better than forward-planning students on their final exams. Exam scores were adjusted for several variables collected from survey data related to desired exam scores, course grade earned, and student involvement.
Organizations that are effective at goal setting are more likely to succeed. However, the specific ways to execute this process aren’t obvious.
Academic studies are one valuable source for learning how to set goals. The studies above show that:
- Writing down and sharing goals makes you more likely to achieve them
- Setting ambitious goals makes you more likely to achieve them
- Planning backwards makes you more likely to achieve your goals
Fortunately today, there are several types of software tools that can reinforce these best practices. For example, Asana and other types of project management software include to-do lists that are public, and have specific deadlines. These systems also include tools for planning that allow you to visualize your plans.