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The Science of Goals

Why do some goals fail?

Do you ever wonder why some New Years Resolutions die a long, slow death while others seem as easy to do as a simple checklist item? It comes down to science.

I want to teach you the science of goal-setting.

The research behind resolutions.

Our investigations for intentions.

There is a science to setting successful goals and it’s not what you would think. In this post I want to talk about how to set your goals effectively and then proactively achieve them.

Why Care?!

The research is clear:

People who set goals are more successful.

Professors get tenure faster, employees get larger raises, even students learn up to 250% faster when goals are set for them (far, far more than if they are merely told to ‘do their best.’)

However, not all goals are created equal:

  • Merely fantasizing about your goal is de-motivating–it actually tricks the brain into thinking you have already achieved it.
  • Goals that aren’t set properly can end up having the opposite effect.

Truth Bomb: Are you setting the wrong goals? Find out. click to tweet

So how do you effectively go about setting and achieving your goals? Throw out everything you have ever heard about goals. This year I want you try:

*Science Based Goal Setting*

(Cue booming music and firework sound effects here)

science of goals

Step #1: What’s Your Emotional Temperature?

Right now I want you to take your emotional temperature. On a piece of paper or on our downloadable goal setting worksheet rate the different areas of your life on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 being extremely dissatisfied, 5 being extremely satisfied).

  • Business: How do you feel about your work, career or business effectiveness and success?
  • Friends: How is your social life? Your friendships and support system?
  • Family: How are your personal relationships? Your partner or spouse?
  • Personal Passions: Do you have personal passion projects, hobbies or fun activities that fulfill you?
  • Spiritual: You can interpret this one as you like. It could be your faith, mental health, personal journeys or mindset.
  • Health: Are you happy with your physical health and wellness?

This is called your Goal Wheel:

goal wheel

A finished Goal Wheel will have the lines filled in so you can see what your ’emotional temperature’ is in each area. For example, this is mine right now:

goal wheel

You can quickly see that my goals for 2015 are going to be focused on Business, Friends and Spirituality. This little exercise is a really easy to way to check in with yourself.

click to tweetShow me your goal wheel! Click to Tweet. 

  • Ninja Tip: I save all of my Goal Wheels and then check-in to see if there are any patterns. You can use these worksheets over and over again to see how far you have come from previous months or years depending on how often you do it.

Step #2: Your Legacy

In my course I talk a lot about your legacy. What drives you. What gets you up in the morning. Before setting goals it is important to think about your big picture. Step #1 is about looking at where you are right now. Step #2 is all about looking at where you want to go. On a piece of paper or on our downloadable goal setting worksheet answer these three questions:

  • In 10 years, what do I want my life to look like?
  • What do I want to be remembered for?
  • What does success mean for me?

Take your time and answer these questions well. This sets the stage for successful goal setting.

Step #3: The Neurology of Ownership

When we take ownership of something–an item, an idea or a goal, we are more committed to it. This is called the “endowment effect” which happens when we take ownership of something and it becomes “ours”, thereby integrating into our sense of identity.

Cornell University researchers showed the endowment effect with a clever experiment. First, researchers gave participants coffee mugs and offered to trade them chocolate for their mug. Almost none of the participants wanted to trade. Next, researchers reversed the trial. They gave students chocolate and asked them to trade for the coffee mugs. Again, very few wanted to trade. This is the endowment effect in action. It was about what they already had, not about the actual objects. When we take ownership of something we work to keep it.

Step #3 is about owning your intention. Look at your Goal Wheel and set an intention for that area–your sections that are 4’s or 5’s might just be about maintenance. Remember, these aren’t specific goals yet, they are just intentions. This is going to help you own a different outcome for yourself in each area. Here are some examples:

  • Business: Level up my business efforts so I can reach and help more people.
  • Friends: Set aside time to support and reach out to friends more regularly.
  • Family: See family more often and dedicate real time to connect and catch-up.
  • Personal Passions: Learn how to paint and spend more time reading.
  • Spiritual: Start meditating to create mental space and slow down at the end of a workday.
  • Health: Get more toned and increase my endurance.

Step #4: Outcome + Process

If I had to pick, I would say this is the most important step: This is why goals fail!

Most people set an intention or an ideal outcome and try to work towards it. That is great, but that is only half of the way there. I want you to pick an outcome and a process.

  • Outcome: The ideal result, hopeful conclusion, best end for your goal.
  • Process: The skills you need, the method required to get you there.

Before I give you some examples, let me explain the science behind the Outcome + Process step. Zimmerman et al. trained participants to throw darts. They split them up into three groups. Group #1 was told to simply get the highest score possible (outcome trial). Group #2 was told to optimize the process of being a good dart thrower by bringing their arm back, adjusting the angle of the throw and having a firm grip (process trial). Group #3 began with the process of throwing and then once they had mastered the skills were switched to focus on the outcome (process and outcome trial).

The participants with the outcome goals performed worst! The process and outcome trial participants got the highest scores by far.

Next to the intentions you set in step #3, I want you to write the skills, process or methods you need to achieve those outcomes. For example:

  • Business: Level up my business efforts so I can reach and help more people.
    • Hire a marketing agency.
  • Friends: Set aside time to support and reach out to friends more regularly.
    • Join a class with friends. Plan a weekend getaway.
  • Family: See family more often and dedicate real time to connect and catch-up.
    • Plan a family reunion that happens on the same holidays each year.
  • Personal Passions: Learn how to paint and spend more time reading.
    • Buy a painting book. Get suggestions of 10 books from friends.
  • Spiritual: Start meditating to create mental space and slow down at the end of a workday.
    • Get a meditation app to remind me before bed.
  • Health: Get more toned and increase my endurance.
    • Buy a weight set and sign-up for a bootcamp.

Step #5: MAC Daddy Goals

Now we are getting somewhere! Next we want to make your intentions into goals. Not just goals–MAC Daddy Goals. In 2011, researchers did a huge meta-analysis of 38 studies on goal setting. They found that there are patterns between goals that work and those that don’t. I put this into the acronym MAC to make it easy to remember:

  • Measurable: Your goals should be quantifiable. There should be a clear ending that can be measured.
  • Actionable: You have to know exactly what you want and the process you need to get there (we did this already in Step #4).
  • Competent: Your goals have to align with your legacy (Step #2) and be achievable. If you set yourself up for failure you curse your goal achievement attempts.

I want you to go through each area and set a measurable, actionable and competent goal. In this way you incorporate your process into your outcome. For example:

  • Business: Hire a marketing agency by March to add 10,000 new subscribers and 5,000 new Twitter followers.
  • Friends: Send 5 classes to friends to sign up together and get a weekend getaway on the calendar before this summer.
  • Family: Plan a family reunion over Labor Day. Set bi-weekly call dates with sisters.
  • Personal Passions: Buy a painting book. Get suggestions of 10 books from friends.
  • Spiritual: Get a meditation app and set a reminder for 9pm each night.
  • Health: Order a weight set and buy a 12 class bootcamp package.

Want even more tips on how to achieve your goals? Sign-up to get our FREE monthly insights straight to you:

Step #6: Stop Reading

There is a reason we have a free downloadable worksheet and I keep telling you to fill it out. Writing down your goals and steps is an essential part of the achievement process. When you write down your goals it triggers a different part of the brain, helps ownership (Step #3) and keeps you more accountable. I don’t care if you use our worksheet, your notebook or a word doc–write them down!

Step #7: Identify Blockers

When we first set our goals we are super optimistic and filled with hope–and that’s great. One thing that happens, however, is we fail to identify possible blockers. I want you to get real with yourself for a moment and answer these questions in your Goal Worksheet:

  • What logistical constraints might make it difficult for you achieve your goals?
  • What behaviors might make it difficult for you to achieve your goals?
  • Who might make it difficult for you to achieve your goals?

This can be anything from financial constraints to unsupportive family members to procrastination. Get real! When we know what your blockers are we can work to plan around them. For example, one of my goals for next year is to read more. I know that if I don’t have accountability to read I just won’t get it done. I push it off, go to sleep, turn on Netflix, you know the drill. So, I started a Science of People Book Club to read with my readers. This way I have to post discussion questions and hear what you have to say while I read–this makes me want to read even more!

Step #8: Make Your Map

When I read this study on goal-setting I laughed out loud because I realized how simple it can be to engineer our goals for success:

Researchers wanted to see if they could get more students to get their tetanus vaccinations. So they printed up two different leaflets and measured the success of each one. The first had scientific explanations on why students should get vaccinated. The second had gruesome pictures of the effects of tetanus. Neither worked.

They made one more trial. They added a map to the leaflet showing the location of the campus’ health center and its opening hours. THIS trial worked like magic. Why? The researchers added process and steps on exactly how to get the desired outcome.

Now it’s time to make your map. In your Goals Worksheet add the steps you need to take to achieve your goal. These can be as small as sending someone an email–in fact the smaller the better. If you can keep your steps to under 10 minutes that’s the best! You can always find 10 minutes.

Once you have broken your goal up into 10 minute segments for success, I want you to schedule them into your calendar.

  • Set calendar alerts, phone alerts, put post-its up, make a big white board to do list for the month. Schedule your steps into your life.

Step #9: Get Accountability

Feedback and accountability will supercharge your goals. Here are some ideas for accountability:

  • Post on your social networks about your goals to get public accountability. Why wait? Tweet me right now.
  • Get a goal partner and set up times to talk or text every few weeks about your goals.
  • Join and set up financial stakes for your goals.
  • Make an awesome club and use the power of groups to achieve your goals and conquer blockers.
  • Change your passwords to remind you of your goals. For example, “LevelUp2015” or “20lbs2015”

#10: Revise, Practice, Revise

This is a new way to think about goals–they are always a work in progress until they are achieved. Don’t be afraid to revise your goals as you go. Maybe you thought that a family reunion was possible this summer but a cousin just planned her wedding in a far off destination. Revise the goal for a winter getaway! Check in with your goal worksheet every few weeks. Leave it pinned up next to your desk so you can easily access it to revise and update it. As you revise you learn about yourself, you reinvigorate your goal and set yourself up for more MAC Daddy goals next year.

Bonus: What’s Your Theme?

One thing I like to do is think about a theme for the year. Last year was the year of learning. My theme for 2015 is all about application–applying all the amazing learning and experimenting from last year to level up my business and relationships. I love thinking about a theme because it centers you in your decisions. Look at your Goal Worksheet and try to find a theme.

Ok, this is it. Time for action. Right now:

  • Fill out your Goal Worksheet.
  • I’m not sure what your goals are, but if we can help: Tell me what your theme for 2014 was and what you are thinking about for 2015!

Want to dig deeper into the science of goals? Check out our book Captivate!

Ever wonder what makes people tick? captivate, captivate book, vanessa van edwardsWant to know the hidden forces that drive our behavior? In Vanessa Van Edwards new book Captivate, she explains a simple blueprint for hacking human behavior. In this science packed, anti-boring guide you will learn:

  • The formula for fascinating conversation
  • How to walk into a room full of strangers and make a killer first impression
  • What to do to increase your impact and income using people skills
  • Our strategy for hacking the people code–we call it the matrix (Keanu Reeves not included with each book sale)
  • The art and science of understanding people

Learn the new–science based way for winning friends and influencing people.

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All Rights Reserved + COPYRIGHT 2014 Science of People, LLC

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


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  6. Yada Dykstra

    I really enjoyed this article – helped me re-focus my goals and give me a leg up on my 2015 resolutions! I always find enacting a plan is my downfall, I have a personal block on moving through with my ideas. The MAC daddy plan can help with that 100%

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  10. Robby Smith

    I love setting goals, but the Emotional Temperature takes our Personal Passions to an another level. Such a great way to reflect on what we want to achieve within the year, and make it measurable so we don’t lose interest. Thank you Vanessa for this!! I will implement this for 2016 as I ponder on my goals 🙂

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  15. Bella Perennis

    I think some people have a naturally strong endowment effect. For example my father: if I ask him to give me a hand with a project, it’s all of a sudden his project and our roles are reversed; suddenly I’m giving him a hand with helping me with my project…

  16. Liam Hayes

    Wow, an actual Vanessa Van Edwards video I’ve never seen before, and on a topic I love! I really loved the goals wheel. I may just start to use it!

  17. Lauren Freeman

    I’ve always made various to-do goal lists, but I never actually followed through! This will help me get my butt in gear and actually achieve my goals ! Now that I’m about to graduate college, I have so many new goals to work toward. Knowing these steps that can help me get to where I want to be keeps me inspired 🙂

  18. Nikki Thornton

    I find that if i dont set myself goals then I will just coast in life and hope for the best! However when i do set myself goals i tend to super exceed any expectations that i may have ?

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  23. Karla

    I think I needed this this for motivation! The whole science behind goal setting and why goals fail is mesmerizing. I need to start apply them now! Thank you Vanessa!

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