Goal-setting Studies

There's a famous goal-setting study that was conducted at Yale University in 1953. Seniors graduating that year were asked if they had goals for the future, and 3 percent responded in the affirmative. In 1973, researchers checked back and discovered that those who had specific goals when they graduated were far wealthier 20 years later than the 97 percent who didn't. Countless self-help gurus from Tony Robbins to Zig Ziglar have cited this study. The problem is that the study didn't happen -- it appears to be an urban legend.

There's no way to prove that goal setting equals financial success. However, recent studies, such as a 2007 study conducted at the Dominican University of California, have shown that people who write down their goals and update friends with their progress tend to be more successful in meeting their goals than those who simply think about them [source: Dominican University of California].

Make Attainable Goals

Working toward goals can give you a sense of purpose, and reaching them boosts your self-confidence. However, there is one major mistake that many people make: setting unrealistic goals that you can't possible attain. Instead of feeling gratified and accomplished, you can end up feeling worse about yourself than before.

Suppose you've had a physical recently and your doctor stated that you would be healthier if you exercised and lost some weight, so you decide to lose 25 pounds (11.3 kilograms) in four weeks. You reason that you can do this by exercising 90 minutes a day and sticking to a strict diet of 1,000 calories. But when you get too tired to exercise, eat over your calorie limit or don't lose the weight, you feel like a failure.

If you've never exercised before, it's not realistic to expect that you'll suddenly be able to exercise for an hour a day. Eating 1,000 calories isn't enough for most people, so it's completely understandable that you'd blow your diet. Finally, most doctors recommend that you lose no more than 4 to 6 pounds (1.8 to 2.7 kilograms) per month. You're not a failure -- you failed at meeting your goal because it was unrealistic.

How do you know that you've set a goal that you're more likely to achieve? One way is to use a technique called SMART:

  • Specific -- Be as precise as possible. Instead of "exercise," your goal should be something like "exercise 30 minutes per day."
  • Measurable -- Come up with a way to measure your success. "Play guitar better" isn't measurable; "learn how to play one new song per week" is.
  • Attainable -- If there's no way you can reach your goal, you're setting yourself up for failure. "Save $100 a month" isn't attainable if you only have $50 left in your checking account after paying your bills.
  • Realistic -- Your goal should stretch you, but not necessarily be easy. "Never drink coffee again" may be less realistic than "only drink coffee once a week."
  • Timely -- Set a clear time frame in which you want to reach your goal. If you don't have a deadline, you may not feel motivated to push yourself.

Our relationships with others typically play a huge part in our happiness. If one of your goals is to improve and strengthen your personal relationships, consider the importance of forgiveness. We'll talk about it next.