It’s a new year, and for many of us we are thinking about what we want for ourselves, our family and the world in 2021. Having survived 2020 we probably want something different than what we endured for the past 9 months. Maybe we want health, travel, connection, stability, prosperity, or peace. For many of us it could be all of the above. But how do we go from wishing for these things to actually getting them?
Being a research-based person I turned to science to see what researchers have found on this topic. Fortunately for us, goal-setting and achievement have been studied for many decades. We actually do have a good sense of what steps lead people to achieve their goals versus dream big but stay at home on the couch.
Some of you may have heard about the mythical “Yale study” where graduates of Yale were interviewed years after graduation about their earnings. The typical story is that the researchers asked these Yale graduates (or sometimes it’s Harvard) if they wrote down their financial goals prior to graduation. The alleged study authors “found” that of the 3% of graduates who reported writing down their fiscal goals before graduation they were making more than the other 97% of graduates combined (who did not write down their earning targets). Sounds great, right? Sadly it turns out that study never happened. However, other studies have been conducted, such as this one done by Gardner and Albee in 2015, which showed that following certain steps MORE THAN DOUBLED participants chances of achieving their goals. The bad news is that it wasn’t as easy as just writing them down, sticking them in a drawer, forgetting about them and then years later outperforming 97% of everyone else. It required more effort. However, nothing that the participants did was super-human. One of my favorite parts of the study is that the goal-setters harnessed RELATIONSHIPS to help them achieve more. Since humans are naturally relationally-oriented this makes sense. Since our earliest evolution as pack animals we have been concerned with how others see us and have benefitted from the support of others. So it’s nice to see that this carries over into achieving our goals for a new and better year.
OK, so the nuts and bolts of what this particular study showed is that there are a series of steps that one can take to increase achievement of goals. The more of these steps you take the more likely you will be to achieve them. I’m going to start with Step Two because Step One was just to think about these things without writing them down. I assume we all know how that will go...so let’s move on to Step Two which actually starts the process for real...
Step Two: Write your goal down, rate how difficult it seems, how important it is to you, to what extent you have the skills to accomplish the goal, your level of motivation and commitment to the goal and any prior experiences with working on this particular goal. You can make up your own scale for this, such as a 1-5 scale or 1-10 scale, or use a progressive list of adjectives such as “easy, moderate, difficult, impossible”. So for example if my goal is to get in shape I could say that it seems, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult thing I have ever done, that getting into shape is going to be a “7”. Then for what extent I have the skills I could say, again 1-10 with 10 being “I have all of the skills”, it’s a 9 because I have gotten into shape before so I actually am pretty confident that I know how to do it (what exercises, etc.). My level of motivation, again 1-10 for this example, may be an honest “5” given the year I just had...my commitment may be a “6”.
Step Three: Now write “action commitments” for each goal. These are concrete steps you can take towards a specific goal. For example if my goal is to get in better shape an “action commitment” is to schedule some classes with a personal trainer, or buy a gym membership, or carve out an hour every evening to walk in my neighborhood.
Step Four: Share these goals and action commitments with a friend. In my example this does not need to be someone who is actually going to go to the gym with me but just someone who knows I am trying to get there 5x/week (or whatever my goal is).
Step Five: Update this friend on a weekly basis as to your progress on your goal, using your action commitments as ways to measure your progress.
It’s not lost on me that this process mirrors psychotherapy, be it individual, couples or group. For most therapists goal-setting is an important part of the intake process as well as, over the intervening months, helping clients figure out the steps necessary to take in order to bring these goals into fruition. Then the weekly therapy sessions act as these “touch points” where the client reports to the therapist how they are doing towards their goals. Therapists can offer support, collaborative problem-solving and feedback to help the client move closer to achieving them. Of course this isn’t the only thing going on in therapy but in my experience it is an important part.
OK, so if you are willing to do these 5 steps what can you expect? Based on the aforementioned study, what I will call the “Dreamers” (Step 1, just thinking about your goals) surprisingly got at least 50% of the way there (towards achieving their goals) 43% of the time in the 4-week study period. Of course I’d like to think that they stalled out in weeks 5, 6 or beyond, because in my experience just dreaming about things rarely makes them happen. But another way to look at that is this: if you are too burned out, battle-weary, overwhelmed or depleted thanks to the year we all just had, at least thinking about your goals will, 43% of the time, get you half-way there in a month’s time. So that’s actually good news given how we all probably feel right now.
BUT, if you want to try to channel that Type A, kick-butt, storm-the-hill person you used to be before the pandemic laid us all flat, press on. Because the “Committers with Friends” who actually wrote down their goals, made action commitments and shared it with a friend had achieved at least 50% of their stated goal 62% of the time. That’s a 44% increase in achievement. Not bad for just a brief writing exercise and a one-time chat with a buddy! But of course if you are ready to kick 2020 in the teeth and go for the gusto, keep talking to your new goal-BFF on a weekly basis to update him or her on your progress on those action-statements. That will get you a whopping 76% towards at least 50% goal achievement in a mere month’s time. That’s a hefty 77% improvement over the Dreamers group.
This study was done on folks in their 20’s through 70’s so that’s good news for those of us over 50. You can still teach old dogs to achieve new tricks. It’s also good news for those in a generation that has been plagued by accusations that they can’t achieve doing their own laundry (sorry, Millenials).
The take home point here is that we can ALL get better at making our dreams a reality with a few not-so-time-consuming steps that will increase clarity, committee to, support and accountability. That could go a long way to making 2021 a redemptive year for all of us.
Wishing you health and happiness in the new year, along with better goal achievement!
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Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.