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Why Setting Goals Could Wreck Your Life

You've been told time and time again that the secret to success is setting goals. But what if goals do more harm than good?

If you’ve ever read a popular book about the importance of planning for the future, you will almost certainly have encountered a reference—and quite possibly several—to the Yale Study of Goals. This is a now-legendary finding about the importance of creating detailed plans for your life. The essentials of the study are as follows: in 1953, students graduating from Yale University were asked by researchers whether or not they had formulated specific, written-down goals for the rest of their lives. Only 3 percent of them said they had. Two decades later, the researchers tracked down the class of ’53, to see how their lives had turned out. The results were unequivocal: the 3 percent of graduates with written goals had amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97 percent combined. It is a jaw-dropping finding, and a powerful lesson to any young person thinking of just drifting through life. It isn’t surprising, then, that it achieved the status of legend in the world of self-help, and in many corners of corporate life.

The only problem is that it is indeed a legend: the Yale Study of Goals never took place.

Some years ago, a journalist from Fast Company set out to trace the source of the alleged study. No academic journal reference was ever cited when it was mentioned, so he began by asking the motivational gurus who liked to quote it. Disconcertingly, when asked for their sources, they pointed at each other. Tony Robbins suggested asking Brian Tracy, who in turn suggested Zig Ziglar, a veteran of the motivational-speaker circuit, and a regular fixture at Get Motivated! seminars. Completing the circle, Zig Ziglar recommended asking Tony Robbins.

When I called a senior Yale University archivist, Beverly Waters, she seemed friendly and eager to help, but when I mentioned the goals study, a note of frustration entered her voice. "I did a systematic check, years ago, when this first arose, and there was nothing," she said. "Then the secretary of the graduating class of 1953 did another systematic check, and nobody he spoke to had ever been asked to fill out such a questionnaire, or anything like that." She added that it was highly unlikely that it had happened in some other year, and been wrongly described as taking place in 1953, because the Association of Yale Alumni would have been involved—and nobody there could trace anyone who remembered it. Waters sighed. "It’s just too good not to be true, I guess," she said.

Of course, the non-existence of one study about the benefits of setting goals does not disprove the suggestion that setting goals has benefits; there is plenty of very real research testifying to the fact that the practice can be useful. What the story indicates, instead, is how far the fascination with goals has gone. You might never have written down any ‘life goals’ yourself, and you might well disagree with the imaginary Yale study’s implication that material wealth is the ticket to happiness. But the basic urge beneath all this is nearly universal. At some point in your life, and perhaps at many points, you likely have decided upon some goal—to find a spouse, to get a specific kind of job, to live in a particular town—and then devised a plan to attain it. Interpreted sufficiently broadly, setting goals and carrying out plans to achieve them is how many of us spend most of our waking hours. Whether or not we use the word "goals," we’re forever making plans based upon desired outcomes. "Consider any individual at any period of his life," wrote the great French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, "and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort." Tocqueville’s use of the word "comfort" should not distract us here; we are, of course, capable of setting far grander and more selfless goals than that. But the deeper truth remains: many of us are perpetually preoccupied with plans.

It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.

One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. As the Boston Globe reported, executives at GM's headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallized in a number: 29. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.

Yet the plan not only failed to work—it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended—and thus more uncertain—research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles. There were certainly many other reasons for GM’s on going decline. But twenty-nine became a fetish, distorting the organization in damaging ways, fuelling short-termism and blinkered vision, all so that the numbers in the business news headlines might match those on the vice-presidents’ lapels. But that never happened. GM continued spiraling towards failure, and went bankrupt in 2009; it ended up taking a bailout from Washington. At the Detroit Auto Show of 2010, the firm’s newly installed president for North America, keen to show how much GM had changed, used the twenty-nine campaign as an example of what it would no longer be doing. "We’re not printing [lapel] pins," he told a radio reporter. "We’re not doing any of that stuff."

In most artificial studies of goal setting, participants are faced with a single task or simple set of tasks; some of them are then encouraged to approach the task with a goal firmly in mind, while others are not. But as the case of GM suggests, outside the laboratory—whether in business, or in life in general—no situation is ever anywhere close to being this simple. In singling out one goal, or set of goals, and striving to meet it, you will invariably exert an effect on other, interlinked aspects of the thing you’re trying to change. In an automobile manufacturing company, that might mean starving your research division of funding in an effort to meet a predetermined market share. Applied to the personal realm, it might mean, for example, achieving the financial wealth you dreamed of at the expense of your personal relationships: attaining your goals at the expense of ruining your life.

Excerpted from The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, published in November 2012 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Oliver Burkeman. All rights reserved.

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian based in New York. He writes a weekly psychology column, "This Column Will Change Your Life." His new book is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Follow him on Twitter @oliverburkeman.

[Image: Flickr user Anthony Gattine]

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  • Jurgen Tietz

    Well written, researched and thought provoking - THANK
    YOU. The timing is perfect, because I am about to write my own BLOG on planning
    for safety professionals  =  review your plans for the new year and this
    article will stimulate my thinking to push my stance of   -  "It's
    not so much your PLAN, but what ACTION you are taking after
    planning, which counts".

    There is nothing
    which moves people more than ACTION and nothing which is more powerful than
    prompt, pro-active ACTION – Jürgen Tietz

  • David J Foster

    I concur with the thoughts of D Vanliere and Lisa Samson.  

    My students will attest that I talk in very simple terms about the value of goals.  The model I use is A=>B.  

    If we understand exactly where we are starting from at A and create a richly contextualised goal at B, we are able to create a series of action plans to close the myriad gaps.  This is our strategy and it creates a meaningful direction whilst making any short-term decisions much easier to call.

    Crucially, since the world around us is dynamic, goal B is always illusory, so we shouldn't obsess over it.  Instead we should monitor progress and celebrate each successful step that we take in the right direction, while regularly reviewing whether the goal is still relevant to us.

    I'm not familiar with the GM case, but my guess (from what is written here) is that they had a rose-tinted view of their (management) skills and market position at A, a testosterone-fuelled and context-free goal at B (unless customer needs, environmental considerations, profitability, community relations, employee engagement etc were buried in the small print) and a strategy with no steps to monitor along the way.

  • Glenn Cressman

    Interesting article, which I enjoyed.  But it doesn't really tell us what we should do instead.

  • Duff McDuffee

    Gollwitzer's research into implementation intentions is very relevant here.

    A "goal intention" is defined as "I intend to reach Z!" whereas a corresponding implementation intention is "If relevant contextual cue Y occurs, I will initiate goal-directed behavior X!"

    This meta-analysis shows that adding implementation intentions makes a huge difference in goal achievement over and above just setting strong goal intentions:

    The issue Burkeman is posing here of course is that of unintended side-effects due to systemic interaction between one goal and another. Rigidly conforming to one goal can exclude other goals from one's attention. I don't think this is an issue with stated goals so much as not stating all of one's goals.

    For instance, in economics there is the notion of externalities, which are things not included in the market analysis. Damage to environmental systems for instance are a common example, as they don't cost the business anything directly. Many environmental economists want to give prices to externalities by instituting things like carbon taxes, thus adding the costs of long-term effects like global warming into the cost of doing business--in other words, making sure to include all of our goals in the equation.

    The other factor is being flexible with goals. "Lean" and "Agile" notions are already becoming quite popular in business. Discussions of when to "persist" (stay with one's plan) or "pivot" (change one's strategy entirely) are now becoming commonplace.

  • Jmcg02908

    I remember reading in a Harvard University Alumni magazine that their longitudinal studies on lifetime achievement showed that those who had set down written lifetime goals as undergraduates had the highest levels of achievement. You called the wrong school.

    Harvard has conducted, for a long time, the most thorough longitudinal study on its graduates.

    You really need to call Harvard and ask about their study.

  • Rlsinsf

    Slightly off-topic here, but while completing my master's in library science, I took a bibliography course in which the professor used this Harvard Study/Yale Study situation to illustrate how mythical studies can become cited "science."  So it's been at least since the early 80s that these studies were known to be fictitious -- not sure why Burkeman would have had to go through so much trouble to learn the truth, it's not new or secret information.  Moreover, humanity has adopted a "truthiness" mindset that says if it seems like it might be true, then it must be true, and the rise of pseudo-science + internet and self-publishing, has added to the problem.  Publishers used to have fact checkers on staff, but the days where accuracy mattered are long gone.

  • BozMN

    And if I'm crowned Miss America, I will work for world peace, using nothing but my crown and my good looks, so we can live in global harmony.

    If you don't have a solid vision of where you want to go, you will be nothing more than a wondering generality.  It's like the way they do soccer tournaments now a days.  We think we are doing good by giving every kid a trophy, but you know what, the kids still know who won the tournament and I have seen kids that are competitive and were not on the winning team, throw the trophy away as they are walking to their car to leave.  They are not fooling these kids.  Making a difference in this world is a God given dream in everyone.

  • Vinay Parmar

    Great article and insights. 

    As the article points out "In singling out one goal, or set of goals, and striving to meet it, you will invariably exert an effect on other, interlinked aspects of the thing you’re trying to change." 

    Our lives do not unfold in a linear fashion and therefore having a rigid goal for achievement isn't always an effective strategy.

    "Success" is about achieving an emotional state of fulfilment or happiness for most, but fulfilment in one area of life can lead to turmoil in another - it's about achieving balance.

    Goals are more effective for short term objectives such as completing a home project, achieving weight loss or finding a partner as they provide bursts of motivation and action. 

    It's far more important to have an enduring purpose in your life or business which governs your direction but leaves room for flexibility in how you deal with what comes along. 

  • BozMN

     It was not the goal that caused the failure, it was the plan on how to get there.  To say the goal is the reason why they failed is no different than someone insinuating guns kill people.  The person using the gun is the one doing the damage, not the gun.  The plan on how to get to 29% was the failure.  If the plan had worked, your article would have been, "How goal setting can make the difference between succeeding and Failing." , which would have been an inaccurate title also.  The title should have been, "How goals without a solid plan of action and a willingness to adjust along the way, will lead to failure."

  • Blainrempel

    Bingo. The Goal itself wasn't the issue, but rather that GM didn't have an effective plan to reach the stated goal. Or maybe they had an effective plan, but didn't execute the plan effectively. But GM didn't "fail" because they had a Goal.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Good insights!  Goal setting can result in serious tunnel vision- you miss what's going on around you while you doggedly pursue your goal.  The world is changing so fast- maybe too fast to plan in traditional terms.  Some kind of new organic planning methodology on the horizon?   

  • D Vanliere

    Goal setting is merely putting into concrete terms what you would like a future state to be.  By itself it does nothing more than make a statement, and perhaps make you aware that there is more to your possible future than you had realized.  Without a comprehensive, realistic plan to achieve goals, it is not likely they will go anywhere.  There is a power in setting down what you would like to achieve, but realizing what is necessary to achieve that has got to be part of that process...the beginning of planning.  This includes what I have to drop to make room for what I want to achieve, where I have to go (physically or otherwise) to be where those who must be part of my goal (e.g., customers, future spouse, associates, experts, etc.) spend their time, and what skills I may need.  Merely reinforcing goals to yourself, if you are not realizing why you are where you are and what it will take to change it will not magically make it happen.  Part of the problem with planning is that we like to only use first order effects, especially if the system we live in is very complex, which the author alludes to.  The problem is when we put a whole organization into believing in such a simple plan that no one dares to point out the logical conclusion of where that plan will take us, given what we know about the rest of our world.  Planning is good and essential, but it is not simple, and it is dynamic and living.  It is not a rule, but a framework under construction.  It needs checkpoints so we can see how we are doing and make necessary corrections, and it needs measures for those reality checks.  But a good plan starts with goals.

  • Lisa Sansom

    Just like people tried to say that Burkeman was against positive psychology in this book (he isn't), people are now trying to say that Burkeman is against goal-setting (he isn't). This extract only shows one downside of goals - that if you just set the goal and only indulge in positive thinking about the final goal, and don't spend any serious time on the analysis of the goal (is it a good one? does it make sense?) and the path to the goal (how will we get there?) as well as bringing in valued collaboration (especially from internal stakeholders), then your goal is useless. Also, there is value to knowing when and how to abandon a goal. Let's not make things too simple. Goal-setting is sometimes useful, and sometimes not. Wisdom helps you determine the difference. How do you get wisdom? Experience. How do you get experience? By trying and failing. I bet GM learned a lot - and so are we.