Why do some goals fail?

Do you ever wonder why some New Year’s 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.
  • I want to teach you the research behind resolutions.
  • I want to teach you our investigations for intentions.

There is a science to setting successful goals and New Year’s Resolutions, 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.

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 percent faster when goals are set for them (far, far more than if they merely are 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 already have achieved it.
  • Goals that aren’t set up properly can end up having the opposite effect.

How do you effectively go about setting and achieving your goals? Throw out everything you ever have heard about goals. This year, I want you try science-based goal setting!

(Cue booming music and fireworks sound effects here)

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 these 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 any way 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 setting

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 setting

You quickly can see that my goals for 2019 are going to be focused on Business, Friends and Spirituality. This little exercise is a really easy to way to check in with yourself.

  • 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: 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 it into our sense of identity.

Cornell University researchers demonstrated 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 participants chocolate and then asked them to trade it for the coffee mug. 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.

This step 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 connecting and catching 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 #3: 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 working toward it. That is great, but that gets you only halfway 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 approach. Zimmerman et al. trained participants to throw darts. They split them up into three groups. Group #1 was told simply to get the highest score possible (outcome). 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). Group #3 began with the process of throwing, and then once they had mastered the skills, were switched to focus on the outcome (process + outcome).

The participants with the outcome goal performed worst! The process + outcome participants got the highest scores by far.

Next, let’s look at the intentions you set in Step #2. I want you to write down 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 an exercise 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 holiday or 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 yourself before bed.
  • Health: Get more toned and increase your endurance.
    • Buy a weight set and sign up for a boot camp.

Step #4: 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 our 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.

#5: Activate

I want to help you activate your Goal Wheel. Watch my free class on goal setting RIGHT NOW!

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

10 replies on “Goal Setting: 5 Science Backed Steps to Setting and Achieving Your Goals”

  1. 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!

  2. 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 ?

  3. 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 🙂

  4. 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!

  5. 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…

  6. 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 🙂

  7. 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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