Does Goal Setting work?

I like Brian Tracy. I think that he is a great speaker and his collection of feel-good anecdotes and homilies are inspiring and uplifting.

I think the problem is that they are probably not true.

Let’s take one very simple message. Goal Setting.

In Brian Tracy’s book “Goals” he says “Success is goals and all else is commentary”…”With goals, you fly like an arrow, straight and true to your target”.

The evidence for the efficacy of goal setting often goes back to a Harvard study that was done between 1979 and 1989 where MBA graduates were asked whether they had written goals and plans for their future. 3% said they did, and ten years later that 3% were earning more than the other 97% of graduates all together. The only difference between them was that one group had goals and the other didn’t.

It’s a persuasive argument. There’s just one problem – it’s not true. There is no evidence the study actually took place.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter. It sounds so obviously true that perhaps we don’t need any evidence – it is a self evident statement that goal setting works, surely?

Brian thinks so. In fact, if writing down goals is so good, perhaps we should do it every day. A technique in “Goals” is to get a spiral notebook and write down a list of 10-15 of your most important goals every day. After around 30 days, you will find yourself writing the same goals again and again.

Brian says that once you do this, your life will take off. Everything changes for the positive.

A simpler version of this is where Brian asks audiences to make a list of goals and put it away for a year. After 12 months, when they look at it “it will be as though a magic trick has been performed. In almost every case, eight out of their ten goals will have been accomplished, sometimes in the most remarkable ways.”

It turns out that I kept such a list after reading this advice. From the 3rd of August 2015 to the 10th of September 2015, a little over 30 days, I kept a daily goals list.

I came across this list again in 2017, around a year and a half later. In my case, 2 out of the 10 goals have been achieved. Not quite the promised 80%.

Now, I accept, this is a single data point and not evidence and does not prove anything either way. My personal belief in the efficacy of goal setting as a rational method of operating, however, is ebbing away.

What does appear to work better and is more supported by the evidence is probabilistic reasoning. At any point, we have a range of options we can choose between.

The goal setting method is a PLAN-DO method. We decide what we want and then the universe, in a slightly mysterious sort of way, is obliging enough to move things around so we get it.

The probabilistic approach sets out the various options we have and helps us make choices on the next steps open to us, based to a greater or lesser extent on what we know about how things tend to work out. This is a TEST-AND-LEARN approach.

More on this in another post, but my experience is that this kind of approach seems to be gaining increasing recognition and acceptance. It also appears to result in better and more predictable outcomes.

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