The Harvard MBA Business School Study on Goal Setting

In 1979, a group of researchers supposedly decided to conduct a goal-setting study on the Harvard Business School graduating class to assess how written and planned-for goals effect later outcomes in life. This Harvard MBA study on goal setting is referenced often on the Web but the details are usually murky or confused.

Since so many have referred to this study, I wanted to demystify and dispel any confusion surrounding it. Oftentimes, people confuse this study with another often-talked-about study on the  Web that was conducted in 1953 at Yale University. This study was similar to the Harvard goal-setting study.

However, back in 1996, Lawrence Tabak debunked that study in a Fast Company article, claiming that it had appeared in the middle of one of the world’s most renowned motivational speakers, Zig Ziglar’s, best-selling videos.

That study looks nearly identical to the Harvard MBA study. Tabak was unable to verify the Yale study after attempting to track the sources down. Not even Yale University itself was able to verify the study by researching its vast annals of information and literature.

So did the 1953 Yale Study exist or was it simply concocted by motivational gurus to excite people about the importance of goal setting?

The Harvard MBA Study on Goal Setting

Well, maybe the 1953 Yale study on goal setting didn’t exist, but what about the Harvard Business School MBA study on goal setting? Did that exist? Well, plenty of people have debunked that as well. One researcher debunked both studies, while claiming to have conducted her own that reinforces the importance of setting and planning for goals.

The 1979 Harvard MBA study on goal setting analyzed the graduating class to determine how many had set goals and had a plan for their attainment. Interestingly enough, the results of the 1979 Harvard MBA study are exactly identical to the supposed 1953 Yale study.

In the Harvard Business School MBA study on goal setting, the graduating class was asked a single question about their goals in life. The question was this:

Have you set written goals and created a plan for their attainment? 

Prior to graduation, it was determined that:

  • 84% of the entire class had set no goals at all
  • 13% of the class had set written goals but had no concrete plans
  • 3% of the class had both written goals and concrete plans

The results?

Well, you’ve likely somewhat guessed it. 10 years later, the 13% of the class that had set written goals but had not created plans, were making twice as much money as the 84% of the class that had set no goals at all.

However, the apparent kicker is that the 3% of the class that had both written goals and a plan, were making ten times as much as the rest of the 97% of the class. 

Ten times as much? If the study is actually true, which most people believe it not to be because there doesn’t exist a single shroud of verifiable evidence, then it would be saying a lot.

The Importance of Goal Setting

Whether or not the Harvard MBA Business School study on goal setting is true, it does help to highlight something very important: to achieve your goals, they need to be written out and planned for. In fact, it’s best to create SMARTER goals, which you can read about here.

However, it isn’t just about creating goals the right way and writing them down, you need to properly plan for them. One of the biggest and most important take-aways from that supposed Harvard MBA Business School study on goal setting is the fact that goals need to be planned for. Without a plan, chances for success are minimal.

One study by Statistic Brain, which decidedly analyzed New Year’s goals, conveys a very similar fact to that Harvard Business School study: very few people achieve their goals. They claim that just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals, with a resounded 92% that end up in failure.

The study, which they seem to change the date on every year to keep current by the way, also claims:

  • 45% of Americans usually make goals
  • 17% of Americans infrequently make goals
  • 38% of Americans never make goals

Another interesting measure about the study from Statistic Brain was the following about how far they actually got before they threw in that proverbial towel:

  • 75% of people made it through their first week 
  • 71% of people made it past two weeks
  • 64% of people made it past one month
  • 46% of people made it past six months

What does this also infer? 25% of people didn’t even make it through their first week of New Year’s goals. Does this sound familiar? This isn’t even to say that out of all these people, only 8% actually achieved their goals. If we’re talking about 300 million people in America, and if 62% of them either usually or infrequently make New Year’s resolutions, we’re talking about 186 million people.

If 186 million people in America are setting goals, that means that 171.12 million are giving up. That’s a huge number. If you don’t want to be a statistic, then you should heed the advice that’s interlaced into the supposed Harvard MBA Business School study: set goals by writing them down and create a plan.

Setting Goals the Right Way

I’ve posted often about goal setting in the past. I’ve even written a number of books on the topic. One of the most popular ones has been a book called How Not to Give Up, which was also translated into Spanish and German. In another book called, Art of Persistence, I also talked a great deal about this.

The point? I’ve talked a lot about the importance of goal setting and doing it the right way. Regardless of the truth behind the Harvard MBA goal setting study, if you want to achieve your goals, ensure that you not only set them using the SMARTER method, but that you also create a massive-action plan.

When we talk about SMARTER goals, we’re talking about goals that are, primarily, highly specific. You need to get really exact about what you want to achieve. Don’t just say you want to be rich, lose weight or start your own business. Get exact about it.

Why should you be specific about your goals? Well, the reason why goal setting works when it’s done on paper and in the right way is because what the mind sees it believes. Think about all the things people have accomplished in this world — it was all just once a thought.

100 years ago, if you told someone we would have pocket computers that could access the world’s information, or self-driving cars, or artificially-intelligent personal assistants and any other number of today’s technological conveniences, they would have told you that you were crazy.

But these are simply the products of our thoughts. Conceive something in the mind, then write it down on paper, but be very precise about it. But once it’s written down, don’t forget that you need to actually follow through with it by creating a plan and tracking your results.

Specifically, here’s what you need to be doing if you want to fall in that 3% that exists in that supposed Harvard MBA study on goal setting:

#1 — Set a Highly-Specific Goal

The goal needs to be specific. Instead of saying you want to be rich, come up with an exact sum of money. As outlandish as it might seem to you today, it’s the subconscious mind’s focus on that precise number that alters much of your actions on a daily basis. If you don’t write it down, it simply means you don’t believe enough in the goal.

Pick the number. It can be $100,000, $1 million, $10 million, $100 million or more. The point? Pick the exact number and a precise time you’ll achieve it. Maybe you’ll say $100 million 5 years from now. Maybe you’ll say $100,000 precisely 12 months from now. No matter what it is, be specific.

Also, make sure that this is a measurable number. It has to be measurable so that you can track your progress. The more you can track on a finite level, the more likely you’ll be to achieve your goal. That’s why it’s also important to be very exact and specific here. And pick the date down to the very day that you’ll achieve this goal.

#2 — Create Strong-Enough Reasons

Reasons come first. Answers come second. If you have a strong-enough reason to achieve a goal, you’ll follow through. If you don’t, you’ll quit. Think about it. In the past, when you really wanted something badly enough, and I mean really wanted it, didn’t you do whatever it took to achieve it?

The point here is to come up with reasons that go beyond the superficial. Those reasons won’t work, I can guarantee you that. When the reasons are superficial, when the going gets tough, you’ll get going. But when the reasons are deep, and the meanings run to the core of who you are, you’ll push through.

What are some examples of strong-enough reasons for wanting to achieve something? Ask yourself the question until your answer equals the question. For example, if you say you want to increase your net worth by $1 million by exactly 12 months from now, why do you want it?

Do you want the extra $1 million in net worth for the right reasons? If you say it’s because you want to buy a flashy car and a McMansion, you can forget it. If you say you want it for other, deeper meanings, you just might follow through. Let’s just say you want it because you want to stop struggling so much in life.

Okay, that’s a good start, but that doesn’t run deep enough. Why do you want to stop struggling? Maybe it’s because you’ve never really had financial security and you’re looking to achieve that. So, security is good. Why do you want financial security? Maybe it’s because you want to take care of and provide for your family.

Security, family and freedom are some good examples of deep-enough reasons. But you need to put some powerful language behind those single-worded reasons. And you have to make sure that you write all of this down. It’s great to have deep-enough reasons, but like your goals, you need to be writing it down so it moves from the abstract into reality.

#3 — Develop a Thorough Plan

No matter how outlandish your goal might seem to others, the only person that has to wholeheartedly believe in it at first, is you. Regardless of what that goal is or why you want it, if you want to follow through, you need to create a plan. Without a plan, you’re dead in the water.

This doesn’t mean you need to know every step you took. In that supposed Harvard MBA Business School study, if it were to truly exist, I would posit that the 3% that actually had a plan put some thought into it, but they didn’t know every single step along the way. It was a general sense of direction that would have been fleshed out annually, monthly, weekly and even daily along the way.

Come up with a plan that’s thorough enough so that your goals have direction. Don’t be left floundering out there. How are you going to achieve those lofty goals? Create a roadmap that will take you from Point A to Point B. Put enough energy and enthusiasm behind this, even if it takes you days or weeks to complete.

Will you start a business? If so, what kind of business? What are some of the steps you need to do along the way to starting that business? Legal requirements? Do you need an attorney? An accountant? Website design? Product manufacturing? What will you do. Detail out the steps no matter what they are and try to be as thorough as possible.

If you’re going to lose weight, buy a new house or anything else, create the steps you need to follow in order to see things through. This is an important part of achieving your dreams and without it, you might just find yourself giving up before you make any real progress.

#4 — Take Massive Action

Having a plan is great. But if you don’t do anything to see your plan through, what’s the point? It’s easy to see now why so few people in that supposed Harvard MBA Business School study on goal setting made so much money. It’s because few people, not only set goals the right way and develop a plan, but also take massive action to see things through to fruition.

You have to decide now what group you’re going to fall under, then find the motivation and inspiration on a daily basis to follow through. However, in order to take action, you’ll need to do things like stamp out procrastination. Procrastination, as they say, is the silent killer. It’s largely responsible for the 92% of people that don’t follow through with their New Year’s resolutions.

Also, in order to take action, you need to ensure you avoid time-wasters by effectively managing your time and quitting your bad habits. If your bad habits are holding you back, you’ll be hard pressed to find the time to take massive action on a daily basis towards the achievement of your goals.

We have all of these distractions in life that it’s so easy to get sidetracked. From social media to in-person socializing, over-indulgence in television, and everything in between, it’s quite easy to veer off track. But it’s important to stay on course, keep motivated and enrich yourself with a daily dose of inspiration.

If your goals are meaningful enough to you, you’ll follow through. You’ll do what it takes so that you can become like the 3% group in the Harvard MBA Business School study, and not like the other 97%. And to do that, you have to be willing to go the extra mile, so to speak.

#5 — Manage, Track and Adjust

Daily goal setting and management of your goals is important. This helps you to achieve milestones along the way to those bigger long-term goals. Daily goals are great also because it allows you to track your results along the way.

For example, if you set the goal of getting out of debt to the tune of $24,000 within a 12-month period, you can come up with monthly, weekly and daily goals to achieve just that. $24,000 of debt paid off in 12 months means $2,000 per month. That might sound like a lot, but not when you look at things on a more finite scale.

$2,000 per month is roughly $66 per day. How can you save or cut out $66 per day in expenses? How can you also earn some side income to make that number more of a reality? Again, if you’re committed enough, you’ll find a way. But $66 per day sounds much more conceivable than $24,000 of debt, doesn’t it?

So track your results by setting daily goals. Then, if you see that something isn’t working out the right way, you can adjust your approach. Similar to a plane that might veer off course due to air-traffic congestion, turbulence or an on-coming storm, you have to make a shift so you can reach your goals. You can’t just give up.

If that supposed Harvard MBA Business School study teaches us anything, it’s that achieving our goals is difficult. But it’s not impossible. As long as we stay focused on our goals and do the work, we’ll get there over time. It just won’t happen overnight. Definitely, don’t expect it to happen overnight. But in time, it will happen. It’s only a matter of time as long as we don’t give up.