Why setting goals makes you happier more motivated – and more successful

Personal goal setting is crucial

Have you heard of the 1979 Harvard study about goal setting? This study became quite famous for its results when they found out:

  • 84% of Harvard graduates had not defined any goals
  • 13% had goals but didn’t write them down
  • 3% had clearly defined goals in writing

Ten years later, the study participants were interviewed again, and it turned out that

  • Those who had goals but didn’t document them earned twice as much as the 84% who had no goals
  • The 3% with written goals on average made ten times more than the others

What terrific proof of the effectiveness of goals.

The catch of the Harvard goal-setting study

There is, however, a small catch to these study results:

You will find countless articles and references to this study, especially in books by motivational speakers, sales trainers, etc.

However, if you want to read the study on goal attainment specifically, it will be difficult.


There has never been a study like this at Harvard that has shown the effectiveness of written goals.

Yes! The impressive results are pure invention. 

But I bet you will continue to read about this study in the future. Tony Robbins mentions it for decades, and even reputable journals like Forbes continue to publish articles referring to this nonexistent Harvard Goal Setting Study.

Is goal setting valuable?

But we must also not conclude that defining and writing down goals defined would be meaningless. That would be a mistake! 

We only know the often-cited study doesnt work as evidence for goal setting.

So we’re back to square one:

Is it necessary to define goals in writing for yourself?

Before we embark on using motivation quotes, let’s take another look at the research. 

And there are studies about goal setting – quite a lot.

A brief overview of theses goal-setting studies can be found in an article by the researchers Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham (New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory)

Locke and Latham analysed 400 studies on goal-setting since 1990. There we find the following findings:

The likelihood of achieving a goal increases if the following criteria are met:

  1. The goal is specific (specific goal, e.g. “Increase sales in region A with product range B by 7.5% by December 31, 2020“) and not a vague goal (“do your best“)
  2. The goal is challenging to achieve and not something that you can simply achieve without investing some effort – because in that case you don’t really make an effort and the goal is not motivating to do so
  3. The goal is not in conflict with other goals (including personal values, moral boundaries, etc.)
  4. The person who wants to achieve the goal commits himself to this goal – i.e. has the firm will to accomplish the goal (and we all know that will can move mountains)
  5. The person has the required skills or can acquire these skills on his/her way to the goal

Locke and Latham’s findings clearly show the importance of defining goals.

Well, now we know that defining challenging goals in writing actually makes sense. We may accept this for work or sport.


Do we need private/personal goals to be happy and satisfied?

Well, the basic functionality of our brain does not differ in our private life from how it works and is motivated in our professional life.

Ok, there are things we do in professional life that we wouldn’t do in private. Or vice versa 😉

But the mode of action of endorphins, for example, which get us in high spirits, or of cortisol, which is released in alarm conditions, is always the same.

In order to feel happiness or joy, something specific has to take place in the brain, and the brain does not distinguish whether it is in private or professional life.

Therefore, we also need goals in private life, and striving for them (and achieving them) fill us with joy, satisfaction and happiness.

But they must not come to easy!

Things we can easily get, goals we can easily achieve, often lose their value quickly.

That’s the reason you should be cautious of the marketing machinery of the consumer goods and luxury industries!

They try to manipulate us with psychological tricks and push us into believing that we need exactly their product to be happy.

But in most cases these products won’t make us happy for a long time.

There are things that make you happy when you are able to acquire them. Like your own dream house or the vacation you always wanted to make. 

Very often the goal itself is not the only important element making us happy. 

In most cases the path and the story that go with it are (at least) equally important! 

Having too many goals is demotivating

If we already have challenging goals in our professional life we really want or have to achieve, those goals will require a lot of energy from us.

You need to be considerate when defining personal goals in addition to them. Do not to add another layer of additional pressure on yourself by defining highly challenging personal goals.

The number and difficulty of personal goals you actively pursue have to fit into your overal situation.

By the way, I deliberately don’t write that everything has to be balanced all the time. 

Because there are times in our life when there is no balance! And that’s not a problem as long as it doesn’t become a permanent condition. That’s called focus on one area. It’s totally fine, as long as it’s deliberate focus, and not blindness.

When I started my first company at the age of 23, I sometimes worked 120 hours a week and still had a private life. At that time, there was no balance at all, but I knew why I was doing it and that I would not continue doing it for 30 years.

At least one private, challenging goal

Depending on the life situation, we may be so busy managing all the moving parts in our life that we neither have the time nor the energy to pursue personal goals.

That’s OK.

But it is also a trap.

Because being “too busy” is a simple excuse for not having goals.

The “once the children leave the house, then …” argument from parents is widespread. I can understand that.

However, postponing your entire life to a point in time far away turns into a problem when an illness or other setback occurs, and that point in time becomes uncertain!

Make sure you don’t postpone everything and have at least one aspiring goal you want to achieve. Like being in shape, or eating healthy, or meditating for 5 minutes every day.

Even if you only work towards your goal for one hour a week on a Sunday morning, at the end of one year you added 52 hours of progress to your balance sheet. That can take you a long way!

We are always working on achieving goals

I like the following saying very much:

Either you work on achieving your own goals, or you help someone else achieve their goals.

Whether it is the goals of the manager, other colleagues, the spouse, or the children – if they are smart (or we forget about our own needs), they let us work towards their goals.

Important: Helping others achieve their goals isn’t necessarily bad.

The decisive factor is whether I “gain” something myself and whether the support of others either takes me closer to my goals or even is my goal.

Personally, it is my goal as a coach, trainer and consultant to help other people achieve their goals faster and better. That is my goal!

One of the biggest challenges of personal goals:


Once you’ve decided to pursue a specific goal, you can better plan what you need to do.

But, sometimes even more important than that, is knowing what not to do any more!

Like wasting time binge-watching Netflix and Amazon Prime sequels…

Your next steps: Goals provide focus and clarity

And now I ask you for the following:

  1. Open your calendar now and create an appointment with yourself within the next 7 days, 30 – 60 minutes long
  2. When this goal-setting meeting with yourself is due, sit down and write down any goals you can think of that would make you happy and satisfied (yes, I know, “well educated children” or “happy family” are great goals – but now it’s about YOU). Once you’ve written down all of these goals, you are done for now.
  3. Set up another appointment for the coming week, again for 30-60 minutes. On that very day you revisit, add to, or rephrase your goal definition.
    And you choose ONE GOAL you want to focus on. It can also be something that you have planned for a long time or that you have already started, but not compled yet. It should be something you will be proud of once you achieved it.
  4. Make it a habit to check on your goal every 1-2 weeks. Whenever you check your progress, write down what the next action steps will be. Focus on actionable tasks you know will take you closer to your goal.

These steps are a simplified version of the highly successful goal-setting method called OKRs, Objectives and Key Results. In our OKR 101 course you’ll not only experience how OKRs work, but also use them for both your private and business related goals.

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