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SMARTening up your goals – Gain your Goal Setting Advantage

For far too long, consultants, trainers, gurus and leaders have been misleading us about goal setting. We keep hearing the same myth that people with written goals achieve greater success in life. I fell afoul of this story myself – after all, it came from the pages of a famous author and I’ve seen it repeated again and again – most recently in an article published by the Professional Golfers Association. The trouble is that this story becomes linked with the concept of setting SMART goals, for which there is some evidence, but written goals? So, I felt that it was time to set the record a little straighter and based on just a little bit of real research…

Goal-setting is one of those things that people, it seems, are near unanimous on its importance to life, career, success, achievement. And there are a great many speakers who advocate goal-setting. The latest ‘fad’ in this is The Secret – Rhonda Byrne’s now famous TV/Film Documentary which, in a nutshell, purports that people who envision what they want will attract its actualization into their life. Now, I’m not going to detract from this appealing idea because there is something in it – but it isn’t new by any means, it’s been written in the Bible for several hundred years. There are others including Zig Ziglar and Anthony Robbins – both of whom quote an oft-used story about the effectiveness of goal-setting: This is the Yale Study of 1953 – some say it is Harvard, and some challenge the year – it matters not, since the study is an urban myth. Let me remind you of the story, you may have heard variations and the precise percentages vary:

Yale researchers surveyed the graduating class of 1953 to determine how many of them have specific, written goals for their future. 3% of them had. Twenty years later, the researchers followed up with the surviving members of the class and discovered that the 3% with written goals had accumulated more personal wealth than the remaining 97% combined!

I repeat – this ‘study’ is an urban myth – whilst it is quoted by some ‘authorities’ and famous gurus on management and self-leadership, there is NO record of the study and NO paper on it. Yet its allure is understandable – it feeds beautifully into the concept that in order for you to accumulate wealth (aka be successful) not only must you have specific goals, but you must write them down. For someone selling a process on written goal setting (see Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins) it ‘proves’ the process.

So is goal-setting really important, or is it just a load of twaddle? To answer this question, rather than rely on stories of spurious origin, it’s important to have some robust research to find out if there’s anything in it.

What is a goal?

Hold on just a moment though, what do we mean by a ‘goal’? Everyone at some point in their life has heard that it is important for us to have goals. Goals provide you a map to your future, whether in business, life, and career or indeed sport. It seems obvious, but a football team playing without a goal to aim for is just kicking a ball around. But, other than the more obvious physical goals as the target of a particular game, what exactly is a goal? And how do you know when you have achieved it? Is it even very important to have goals? A sporting goal is a useful analogy though; here we are more interested in the non-sporting variety.

The OED definition of a goal is “an aim or a desired result”. That’s useful, but I prefer the Wikipedia version which defines a goal as “a specific, intended result of strategy.” They amount, ultimately to the same thing: the intended achievement of a desired result. The dictionary definition, however, suggests that the goal exists with or without you. Why is this important? I hear some question already. Let me share an example:

On the horizon is a mountain, its peak visible on this glorious day. It is your goal. You are aiming to reach the peak of this mountain. According to the dictionary the goal is the mountain peak. According to the encyclopedia, the intended result is that you reach the mountain peak as a result of the journey (intended strategy) you are making.

What’s important, the existence of the goal or the journey to its attainment?

Let me refer briefly back to soccer… Is the existence of the goal at the end of the pitch the thing that makes the game, or is it the strategy (and tactics) employed by players to score (reach) the goal?

The reason for being pedantic at this stage is to stress that we refer (in English) to goal as both an entity and as the intended result of our actions. For the purposes of this article, I refer to goal as both – an entity that we are able to describe in one or more of the five senses we enjoy and as a specific, intended result. I believe that it is critical that a goal can be described in one or more of our senses – otherwise we will never know what it is.

“A man without a goal, you are like a ship without a rudder.” Thomas Carlyle

You know people, perhaps yourself, who would be lost without a “To Do” list. Daily, weekly, monthly tasks that result in specific intended results. Many people will consider this as their goals. Indeed, you can call them ‘goals’ if you wish. But I want to distinguish this concept further. I call these daily, weekly, monthly tasks “Outcomes” – they are important steps on the way to achieving goals but they are a small part of the overall intended result.

I’ll borrow from my own To Do list for today. It includes, strangely enough, writing the first three sections of this article. Now, is my goal to write three sections of an article? Is it to write an article? I can answer yes to both yet it doesn’t tell us the full story – my Goal is to develop my business and as a part of that, I want to reach a wider audience for the purpose of building my brand, building my reputation and establishing myself as a trusted expert that you will now consider to design and run a training programme or undertake coaching in your organization. This article is just one part of that strategy, and this section, just one part of this article. The primary and secondary research I’ve undertaken to be in a position to write, I trust, knowledgeably about goal-setting has been another part… and so on.

It is the goal that helps us determine the appropriate outcomes necessary to reach the goal, the specific outcomes help determine the actions we undertake to achieve them. The whole series together, makes a strategy.

For ease and clarity, I consider a “Goal” to be longer-term and the intended result of a strategy. “Outcomes” are the result of the steps, milestones or activities that we achieve en-route to achieving the goal.

When I was a child, schoolteachers and relatives would often ask “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” I honestly didn’t have a clue. My friends seemed to have got the hand of this and I discovered that the expected answers seemed to be focusing around jobs or careers “I want to be a Fireman/Doctor/Train Driver”, or perhaps something bolder like “Rock Star/Famous Actor” – or around money… “I want to be a millionaire”. Apparently it didn’t matter what you wanted to be – it still required that you studied hard, preferably got all A Grades – oh and it was critically important that you “eat all your greens”. Quite how Brussels sprouts are a necessity for success has never been answered fully to my satisfaction. By the time I was a teenager, I was at the “I dunno” stage. And by the time I was choosing my A level subjects it seemed that my options were becoming limited. Artist was ruled out on the recommendation of my delightful art teacher who claimed that my lovingly crafted painting “hurt her eyes” and Author was ruled out because I had little taste for over-analyzing Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey.

To my knowledge, none of my friends answered “I wish to be a wage slave pushing paper from one side of a building to another, politically maneuvering myself into a position of power and authority, attending useless meetings each day and commute for 4 hours” so what went wrong?

Well, perhaps it is the goal-setting process.

What is goal setting?

Inadvertently, or deliberately, people asking us when young “what do you want to be…” have set us on a process of goal-setting. They are asking us to peer in our mind’s eye into the distant future and describe our goal. With little worldly experience, we most likely think of people we admire that through their job demonstrate what is valuable to our young minds.

What would you like to achieve in X years that having achieved it will satisfy your personal values? Would you ask a ten year old that question? No? It’s unlikely that they would understand – but with the massive leaps in education and increasing pressure on children to know a whole lot more than the current generation of mature adults, they may well be asking you that question and be surprised if you can’t answer it. I digress, but we are effectively asking that when we say “what would you like to be…”

Goal-setting is a process by which we choose our intended result, decide what we want to achieve in the longer-term AND determine HOW we are going to attain the goal (i.e., the strategy). Therein lies the problem for many people in regard to goal-setting… the process necessarily includes the strategy to achieve the goal. When relatives with kind intentions ask “what do you want to be…” the strategy they advise to achieve whatever you said, invariably refers back to the need to study hard, be a good child, don’t answer back and above all… “Eat your greens!” As you get older, the advice may become more specific and even, more useful. You begin to discover which areas of knowledge and skill you most enjoy and are better equipped to clarify your personal goal as you become increasingly aware of what is important to you.

Goal-setting for your career, life and business is strongly advocated and endorsed in hundreds of books and papers and articles. Most emphasize the importance of writing your goals down as part of the goal-setting process.

Is goal-setting important?

Ask almost anyone about the importance of goal-setting and they will affirm that it is incredibly important. Here is a small selection of verbatim responses to the question “How important is goal-setting?”

“The difference between successful people [and people struggling] is the setting of tangible and measurable goals.”

“I believe goal setting does work and needs to be written down. ”

“If there are no set goals, things either happen, or they don’t.”

“With measurable goals you are in action to fulfill them”

“… there’s no excuse for failing to progress if you don’t take ownership of your own goals”

“Setting yourself some goals is always going to be effective”

“I have been setting goals for myself for over 10 years. I believe that the goals enable me to achieve the things that I want”

“People who are successful tend to be the same sort that write down goals”

So there seems to be consensus that goal-setting is important, yet there is some evidence to support it, yet, as we shall see, from research undertaken for this study, having written the goal down is perhaps not the most important concern. What we will see is that the process of goal-setting is perhaps more important than the goal itself! There is some strong support for the concept of SMART goals. Goals that are Specific and Stretching, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. There’s a great deal of common sense reasoning that supports the idea of SMART goals – and there’s some excellent robust research.

Why set goals?

Edwin Lock and Gary Latham have undertaken a great deal of leading research about goals and goal-setting and neatly suggest that setting goals implies dissatisfaction with the current condition and a desire to attain an outcome Locke and Latham, 2006.

Why Specific and Stretching?

In Locke and Latham’s 2006 study and previous articles, there is an emphasis on the positive relationship between goal difficulty and performance. Locke and Latham, 1990; Locke and Latham, 2002. That is, the more difficult the goal is to achieve, the higher the level of performance is manifest – albeit moderated by commitment to the goal. Earlier studies had already identified that specific and difficult goals led to greater performance than easy and/or vague goals Latham and Lee, 1986

Commitment to achieving a goal – Attainable and Realistic

Hollenbeck and Klein, 1987 suggest that an individual’s commitment to a goal (building on Locke’s research and many others) is dependent on a combination of the expectancy that the individual has of achieving success, and the difficulty of achieving the goal. In the commonly used mnemonic, SMART goals, this is usually considered as the ‘AR’ of SMART – Attainable and Realistic. Though Hollenbeck and Klein help point out that when we set a goal, it may well seem that the goal is attainable – I can do everything that I need to do to achieve this and am prepared for the cost in time, effort, etc. – and it may well seem to be realistic – Given the resources that I have and the current environment, this goal can be practically achieved.

Measurable and Time-bound?

I don’t think it would be possible to undertake research on something that had no measure nor a time restriction – how would you know that you had achieved success if there was no measure, and if there is no time limit, when would you stop measuring or even not measuring. So these remain ‘common sense’ though a post-modernist might disagree.

So there is support for the concept of SMART goals – now why is it so important that we ‘write’ them down?

There are some who suggest that writing something down increases commitment to the goal but the evidence is anecdotal. For some individuals, the act of writing something down assists clarity through a conscious process because they consider something written to be a personal commitment. Does that mean it is true for everyone? To help answer this, we undertook primary research to mirror the mythical Yale Study. Through a simple questionnaire, respondents were asked if they had set goals for themself on leaving school, college or university, when this was and if they had written it down. They were then asked to estimate their total personal wealth now. The results are quite shocking.

Results from our survey

215 individuals completed the online questionnaire over a seven week period. Respondents were mostly UK-based (80%), with further respondents from Asia (11%) and the USA (9%). This researcher invited respondents through social networks, Ecademy and LinkedIn and direct contact with companies across the UK, Asia and US. 70% of respondents are in full-time employment and the remainder either self-employed or business owners.

Only results shown to be significant at 0.05 are discussed.

At the end of their formal education, 69.8% had a personal goal of whom only 11.2% had written their goal down.

Goals and personal wealth

Of those that had written their goal, their average personal wealth is GBP115000, whereas those who had not written their goal down, their average personal wealth was GBP295000. That’s more than two and a half times as much! Completely contrary to the supposed Yale Study.

We asked respondents when they left formal education and analyzed this against their estimated personal wealth.

Those leaving formal education in the 1970’s have an average wealth of GBP475000, 80’s GBP195000 and 90’s… GBP325000!

It seems reasonable that those who have been in the workforce longer would have greater personal wealth and so it is… almost. The anomaly appears to be those who left formal education during the 80’s.

Those leaving in the 70’s have generated on average 13,500 each year since leaving. 80’s grads a miserly 7,800 and those bright young things from the 90’s, a whopping 21,600!

So what’s going on?

It may have something to do with SMART goals.

SMART goals and personal wealth

Those who set Specific Measurable only goals average a low 25,000

Add Time-bound to specific and measurable and this goes up to 50,000

Just Attainable and Realistic goals – now this is averaging 150,000

Specific, Measurable, realistic and time-bound and we rise rapidly to 475,000

Go the whole hog, Specific, measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound – and we reach 605,000

We seem to be finding some useful answers here. Don’t worry so much about writing your goals down, just so long as they’re SMART. So is that it? No. There’s a couple of very interesting additional significant statistics in our survey. They deal with the type of goal.

Goal focus and personal wealth

Respondents were asked if they were willing to share their own personal goal, 60% did so and these break down into four main focuses: Career, Lifestyle, Money or Ability. We also asked how satisfied respondents were with their achievement.

For those with a Lifestyle goal focus, average wealth is 95,000 and ‘satisfied’ with their achievement.

A Career focus, average wealth is just over 100,000 and ‘somewhat satisfied’

A Money focus, average wealth is 162,500 and ‘satisfied’ and lastly,

An ‘Ability’ focus, average wealth is 780,000 and ‘very satisfied’!

Go on, have a guess on the statistical conclusion… yep; those who left formal education in the 90’s focus more on ‘Ability’, 80’s focus on career and lifestyle, whilst the 70’s predominantly Money. Surely a reflection of the environment of the time.

The great thing about focusing on what you are ‘able’ to do will help the goal-setting process be more effective. Following Locke and Latham’s findings that ability to achieve the goal moderates performance – too difficult and uncommitted individuals do not perform, whereas, stretching yet within my potential ability aids commitment to goal attainment.

Respondents were asked if they were willing to share their own personal goal, 60% did so and these break down into four main focuses: Career, Lifestyle, Money or Ability. We also asked how satisfied respondents were with their achievement. The first three are ‘Outcome’ goals – that is, they specify a particular tangible outcome. Ability focus is a ‘Performance’ goal – such goals focus on an ability or capability of the individual.

For those with a Lifestyle goal focus, average wealth is 95,000 and ‘satisfied’ with their achievement.

A Career focus, average wealth is just over 100,000 and ‘somewhat satisfied’

A Money focus, average wealth is 162,500 and ‘satisfied’ and lastly,

An ‘Ability’ focus, average wealth is 780,000 and ‘very satisfied’!

Go on, have a guess on the statistical conclusion… yep; those who left formal education in the 90’s focus more on ‘Ability’, 80’s focus on career and lifestyle, whilst the 70’s predominantly Money. Surely a reflection of the environment of the time.

The great thing about focusing on what you are ‘able’ to do will help the goal-setting process be more effective. Following Locke and Latham’s findings that ability to achieve the goal moderates performance – too difficult and uncommitted individuals do not perform, whereas, stretching yet within my potential ability aids commitment to goal attainment.

Outcome goals – some issues

The problem facing many people with regard to ‘Outcome’ goals is that there is an element that is outside the power of the individual.

An example of the potential issues with an ‘outcome’ goal comes from a rather sad testimony from one particular research participant:

“My goal was to have $3 million in the bank for my retirement by age 55. I achieved my goal with great satisfaction early at age 43. Unfortunately my bank was at the centre of a fraud and went under. 16 years later, I am still working and slowly rebuilding my goal. So, goals are important and we need to know what we want to achieve in life – just choose a goal only including yourself and don’t leave all of it in one place.”

Outcome goals are most often subject to others and to the environment. The greater the attainability of a goal through yourself only – I.e. Your own performance – the more you are in control of goal achievement. Goals that have a high dependence on others and/or external circumstances are considerably more difficult to influence.

As an extreme example, one survey participant has goal to win the lottery! Now there are certain things that you can do to increase the likelihood of this becoming reality, buying tickets is a useful component, but how many? Interestingly, another participant who had a ‘money’ goal did indeed achieve their goal – through winning the lottery! Though that wasn’t the original plan and they rated themselves ‘somewhat satisfied’ in having completely achieved their goal.

Whilst touching on monetary goals, another participant reminds us that being specific about your goal is important: “My goal was to be a millionaire by 35… I achieved it the moment I stepped away from the foreign exchange counter at Jakarta airport!”

Following up with our survey participants revealed commonality in the way they went about setting goals and their subsequent actions to achieve their goals. We’ve already seen how those with the greatest success in terms of personal wealth had SMART goals. This isn’t to say that success can only be measured by means of personal wealth at all – the original intention was simply to test the mythical Yale Study results. And, of course, someone could have set themselves a perfectly good SMART goal – but due to their own environment, had not accumulated as much personal wealth in terms of a standard currency – indeed, a person could have less in terms of monetary wealth yet be considerably better off in terms of the value they can obtain from less money.

Performance goals

An interesting aspect that began to show itself through the results was personal satisfaction in goal achievement. People who set ‘Ability’ type goals, or ‘Performance’ goals reported to be ‘very satisfied’ with their achievements – whether completely achieved goals or not yet complete. In part, this suggests the importance of personal values and suggests a question about the process by which they set goals.

Through a random selection of fifty respondents we found that there is some commonality in the manner in which goals are set:

When we compare the groups of ‘Very Satisfied’ with their achievement and ‘Satisfied’ or ‘Somewhat Satisfied’ with their achievement. The first group were more likely to have SMART goals. The goal is described in sensory terms – what will be seen, heard and felt, and for a small number, smelt and tasted. Respondents were clear about what achieving the goal will do positively for them and the cost to themselves (and others) of achieving their goal. Their goal, they considered personally stretching yet ‘knew’ that they were capable of achieving it themselves. More than 60% stated their goal in the present tense – ‘I am’ rather than ‘I will be’.

This provides a template for a useful goal-setting process that we’ve turned into an easy-to-remember acronym: SWING.

Goal setting process

A SMART and Sensory performance goal

What will I positively Win and lose

Am I In control of achieving this goal?

Stated as Now

Guarantee – this is an added psychological process to ensure personal motivation towards achieving the goal.

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