Is there any point in goal setting and making a formal life plan? The answer is a definite yes - but who says so? Where is the reliable proof? 

written by David Lilley

(7 minutes reading time)   

When it comes to life systems and holistic treatments, I’m one of life’s sceptical people. However, I’m definitely not a negative person, I am most definitely a predominantly optimistic soul and a positive contributor to life. However, when someone asks me to consider doing, buying or adopting something, I’m at the front of the queue of people who will look at the reviews and seek the evidence. For example, if I buy a product from Amazon, it has to carry at least a 4.5 star rating. If I am asked to take a nutritional supplement, I will look for the clinical studies to give me some confidence that it is worthwhile. I have even paid to subscribe to a nutritional supplement research portal called Examine to support this evidence habit of mine.

It is for this reason that, in being the man behind the DEBRA Formula, I want to present some solid evidence to support the value of life planning and goal setting, using systems like mine.

This article sets out some of the credible scientific studies that you can examine to give you confidence that the task of embarking on a life planning exercise is truly worthy of your time.   

1. People who write down their life desires and goals are more successful in accomplishing them than those who did not

One of the most credible recent goal-setting studies is from Professor Gail Matthews, a psychologist from the Dominican University of California. Her 2015 study concluded that those who commit their goal-setting plans to paper (using a specific method) achieved more than when compared to those who simply envisioned what they wanted to accomplish in life in their minds’ eye.

As I reflect on Gail’s study, I am reminded of the famous quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who said “A goal without a plan is just a wish” and Tony Robins who said Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

A link to the Gail Matthews study summary is here.

         2. Setting actionable goals and ensuring weekly progress mapping against them creates a 40% higher achievement rate

From the same study by Gail Matthews, it was made profoundly clear that putting an action and accountability plan in place makes a huge difference in the achievability of your goals. When embarking on a serious life planning exercise, I would always encourage you to have support from some of your most trusted confidants. However, you can still make yourself accountable by frequently reviewing your life plan, making notes on the progress, and adjusting your path when you stray off course.  

This useful downloadable resource summarises the Gail Matthew’s study. The link is here.

        3. Being specific about goals changes the motivation to achieve them

One of the biggest pieces of advice I give to anyone setting out a life plan is: to be clear and rationale about your life desires and goals.  A study from Arvey, Dewhirst and Boling supports my position on this point.

As you will read in the free course documentation for the DEBRA Formula that can be downloaded from this website, I will encourage you to be specific in setting your goals and desires. This study reveals that being specific really does contribute towards the accomplishment of your goals. Any goals you set that are loosely defined, don’t have the same effect as specific ones.

The link to the study is here. This particular study may be more relevant to goal planning inside a company but it is still hugely valid.   

4. Goal setting for university students

This study from the Journal of Applied Psychology is closely linked, in terms of the revelations it provides, to the study we have just referenced in section 3 above. The study reveals that if students are to carry through and finish their degree courses, it is important to have clarity toward their goals and to use proven goal-setting techniques.

As you might guess, some students are not always motivated to finish their university course term. This is often due to a lack of clear career goals and the inability to attach life relevance to the qualifications the student is seeking.

How many students do you know who choose their degree course and then complete their education but then choose not to operate in an industry that utilises their qualifications? According to this report, a staggering 65% of university graduates don't use their educational degree in their work. 

And yet conversely, we see a good proportion of mature students who take degrees and courses because they have lived longer and have decided more clearly about what they want from their life and career.  

While the results of this study are perhaps more relevant to academia, it remains a great additional example to underpin how the process of life planning can inspire a person towards taking the actions to accomplish their desires.

A link to the ResearchGate study is here.

     5. More difficult goals for capable people

Goal effectiveness studies from Locke and Latham go back more than 50 years, but they are still commonly quoted and credible sources. This specific study ran from 1969 – 1980 and was among the first to examine the importance of specificity when it comes to setting goals that are more challenging, but remain goals that are achievable.

Offering a very basic synopsis, according to the researchers, the action of setting goals that carry a greater degree of difficulty (but are goals that are linked to people who actually have the ability to complete them) led to a much higher performance rating. The link to the Locke and Latham study is here.

       6. The reality of New Year's resolutions and the close to 50% effect

This is another study that is more than 20 years old. This one looks at the effectiveness of New Year’s resolutions. Conducted by the University of Scranton, the results revealed an encouraging story.

As you might guess, although more than half of New Year’s resolutions are forgotten about within the first 1-2 weeks, 46% of the people are successful in making positive progress and changes towards their life plan and their goals, after setting New Year’s resolutions.

I was especially pleased to read this indication, as the study proves that making some changes (even if modest) is always better than not planning and committing to change anything.

You can read a summary of the University of Scranton study here.

7. Make the goal more challenging

In a study designed from the Journal of Applied Psychology, which was created to assess energy efficiency in peoples’ homes, 80 families were encouraged to set goals and make a commitment to reduce their energy consumption. 

In the study, half of the participants were set a challenging target, whilst half of them were set an easy goal, or no goal at all. During the study, 50% of the families were offered feedback reports on how much energy they were saving.

The outcome was that the families who were set the most difficult goal conserved the most energy. The families who were set the easy goal did not save significantly more energy than families who were asked to set no energy savings goals at all.

Interestingly, those who were given feedback about their performance during the study were a lot more motivated and effective in sticking to their energy-saving goals and targets.

This study supports my strong recommendation that you must have a measurement method linked to your life plan, and it helps to have people you trust encouraging you along the way.

It is clear that we achieve more and are more motivated if we take measurement and feedback along the journey – especially in relation to those more challenging goals.

A link to the Journal of Applied Psychology study is here 

      8. The results from a professional examination of almost 400 tests prove that goal-setting changes behaviour

I especially like studies that are forensic and data driven. In this study from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the objective was to examine the positive effect of goal setting on individual behaviour. To accomplish this, the researchers studied four databases and found that goal setting is particularly effective if:

This study also reveals that goal-setting can motivate us to adjust our behaviours in synchrony with the progress we are making towards our goals.

Considering this, it seems fair to say that, if you are one of life’s procrastinators, there is more than an average chance that you will likely change your ways after you start to plot your pursuit of success through life planning and goal setting.

This excellent Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (a method that  represents the gold standard in research efficacy) from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology can be found here.

9.  Be clear on your reasons why

If you choose to go through the DEBRA Formula life planning system, you will notice some of the questions you are asked to consider, are linked to the benefits of the goal you are setting and the substance of the goal's purpose.  

In our next study, this time published in Personal Psychology, during a 10-week study on 41 female typists, it was concluded that the participants who understood the rationale, substance and reason why the goals are necessary, proved to be more successful in tackling the challenges.

As we consider this, I am reminded of life’s why factor. Often people refer to their why in life – why are you doing what you do, why are you striving for something specific?

This study shows that if there is a clear and compelling reason for your goal (your reason why), you will feel more of a sense of purpose surrounding the relevance of your actions as you move towards your goal accomplishment and the success you crave.

A link to the Personal Psychology study is here.

10.  The impact of goal setting on persistence

My final example is from the University of Texas. This study proves that entrepreneurs remained consistent (but most importantly persistent) with their business efforts when they continued to challenge themselves with the tool of planning and goal setting.

The study also showed that breaking down more complicated goals into easier-to-manage goals, made it much more likely that the business owner will complete the goals set.

Once again, my DEBRA life planning formula asks questions that encourage a focus on the smart setting of goals. This includes prioritising them, and making sure the tools, knowledge and other resources (that you need to have in place to help you pursue and accomplish your goal) are secured. You can see a basic synopsis of the Texas University study here.

"Life extends us all the same option - you have a choice to be a drifter and a hoper, or a planner and a navigator"David Lilley

To conclude

I always say to my clients that "evidence creates belief and belief creates action." I trust that the information and access to studies I have shared here are conclusive and credible evidence that the exercise of goal and life planning works. I hope they give you belief. 

With these compelling links to quality and contrasting research, I hope that any lingering doubts you may have about the life-changing value that you can access by putting yourself through a life planning exercise, are now buried and you feel motivated to be one of the 5% of people who commit to such a detailed life plan.

As the DEBRA Formula tools are totally free and without catches, what are you waiting for?

Written by David Lilley, the creator of the DEBRA Formula