Why Only 8% of People Achieve Their Goals, According to Research

Max Phillips


Research from the University of Scranton shows that only 8% of people fulfill their New Years' resolutions.

Goals need focus and direction. You can’t just blindly set a goal and hope for the best. Nor can you merely hope they will cause your success. They need to act as a starting point.

If you want to be successful, you need to achieve your goals — the right ones. To get it correct, you must ask yourself some questions:

Is Your Goal Truly Your Own?

The other day, I watched Inception for the fourth time. As you may know, the idea of “inception” is to go inside someone’s dreams and implant an idea, but it has to be of their own making — not from someone else.

Think about it. If I said to you a few days ago “we should go to McDonald’s,” that idea will have festered in your brain until you eventually suggest it — it isn’t unique.

An idea, the film says, spreads like cancer. The problem with goal setting is throughout your younger life; you are impressionable. You don’t know which goals to have, so you set them based on your parents, teachers, and anyone else with more life experience.

I wanted to be an athlete when I was 11 because I liked watching Usain Bolt on TV, and everyone around me had given me confidence in my abilities. Suffice to say, the desire soon waned.

In Inception, the team needs the son of a dying energy conglomerate CEO to decide to break up his empire, but of his own accord. Spoiler alert: they do it by getting the son to believe that his father was disappointed in him for being like him — not just disappointed as he had first thought.

A goal needs to be a result of your decisions. Sure, Inception was all about planting an idea in someone’s mind and making it look like their own, but your life isn’t a sci-fi movie. Ask yourself if your current goal is exclusively yours, not forced upon you.

Is It Just for Show?

92% of people don’t achieve their New Year’s resolutions.

Why? It’s flashy. They are a way for people to brag about the person they are aiming to become and set non-specific goals, without the genuine intention of carrying them out.

Research suggests 80% of people who join the gym in January will quit after five months. The goal is merely sentimental. They tell others, and themselves, they are carrying out the target. It is only a façade. Cut out all the crap and realize what you “should” do isn’t necessarily what you want to do.

Do You Have Too Many Goals?

You only have a fixed amount of time and energy a day. If you have too many goals, chances are you aren’t going to be able to fulfill all of them adequately — leaving you right where you started.

My 2020 New Year’s resolutions were to learn Italian, learn to play the keys, and become a professional writer. To fit this in around my shifts at work, I created a table:

Screenshot by author.

As you can see, I had planned my free time to be filled to the brim. It seemed productive, but constantly switching my brain between tasks wasn’t healthy. I tried to adhere to this schedule for one week before giving it up.

Sure, Earl Nightingale once said: “If you spend an extra hour each day of study in your chosen field, you will be a national expert in that field in five years or less.” The problem is, if you have too many goals, you can’t put enough time into the ones that matter. It is better to become an expert in one field than average in multiple.

I realized the one goal I wanted the most was to become a professional writer. Even when trying to stick to the schedule, the writing was the one task I carried out the most. So I decided to put all of my energy into Medium. I’m still growing, but I have become a top writer and well on my way to success.

Are Your Goals Negative?

12% of all gym sign-ups happen in January — more than any other month. This, in part, is because people start the year with hope and motivation to become a different, better person.

The problem is how they word their goals.

  • Don’t say you’ll “lose weight,” get healthy instead.
  • Don’t say you need to “stop spending too much time at work,” spend time with your family and friends.
  • Don’t say you need to “stop watching too much TV,” read and learn more.

The initial motivation to “lose weight” will wane because a negative goal is emotionally unattractive. Eventually, it will drain all enthusiasm from you, leading you down the path of the other 92%. Rather than punish yourself for something you shouldn’t be doing, reward yourself for doing something you should.

Do You Know How Long It Will Take?

Follow up question:

Are you prepared?

One of the reasons only 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals is because they don’t know what progress looks like. A new gym starter may feel and look better after two month’s exercise, but where do they go from there? How do they know they’ve achieved their goal of “getting fit?”

You don’t know what the success you want looks like, so you struggle to power through and maintain it.

Consequently, you might not check the time frame, as the goal seems never-ending. In the early stages of my fledgling writing career, I made sure I came to terms with how long it would take to get where I want to go. Long story short: it will take a while.

It’s easy to get lost in the process, but no matter how slow things seem, you are probably making progress. In his book I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence, Michael Jordan outlines the necessity of mini-goals:

“If your goal is to become a doctor and you’re getting Cs in biology then the first thing you have to do is get Bs in biology and then As. You have to perfect the first step and then move on to chemistry or physics.
Take those small steps. Otherwise, you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of frustration. Where would your confidence come from if the only measure of success was becoming a doctor? If you tried as hard as you could and didn’t become a doctor, would that mean your whole life was a failure? Of course not.”

In the UK, it takes ten years to become a doctor. Realizing and then understanding that would be the first stage. Then, as Michael says, you need to work step by step. Otherwise, you will get lost.

A Smarter Way to Set Your Goals

Now you’ve asked yourself these questions, how do you go about setting a goal? What should it look like? Use the SMART acronym to give yourself direction.

  • Specific: Well defined, precise. Instead of “I want to get healthy,” say “I will get a gym membership and train with weights four times a week to get fitter.”
  • Measurable: With specific criteria that measure your progress toward the accomplishment of the goal. For exercise, measure your muscles and record your weight. For my writing, I aim for a 20% increase in views each month.
  • Achievable: Attainable and not impossible to achieve. Instead of saying you want to be the greatest writer in history and win a Nobel prize, say you want to become a professional writer.
  • Realistic: Have relevance to your life purpose. I’m not going to learn to code if I want to be a writer, for example.
  • Timely: With a clearly defined timeline, including a starting date and a target date. E.g. “I want to become a paid writer by October.”

Using the SMART technique prevents generalizing a goal. Moreover, it means you must be honest with yourself. I was honest with myself and decided to ditch Italian and keys. If I didn’t, no doubt I would be far less satisfied than I am now.

Why Do Only 8% of People Achieve Their Goals?

They aren’t honest with themselves. In case you’d forgotten, here’s what you need to ask:

  • Is your goal truly your own? Make sure others don’t overly influence you in your life. That way, you know you’re doing what’s best for you, which will boost your motivation and drive to succeed.
  • Is it just for show? New Year’s resolutions, in particular, tend to be flashy. You brag about the broad goals you have planned but you never really get going. Make sure your goal is real and attainable.
  • Do you have too many goals? As I learned the hard way, setting too many goals, while on the face of it, a productive venture, will leave you nowhere. Put all of your energy into one or two things and go from there.
  • Are your goals negative? The wording is essential. Instead of criticizing yourself, give praise for the things you’ve done right. It’ll maintain the appeal of the goal as time passes by.
  • Do you know how long it will take? And are you prepared? If it is going to take a while, it is easy to get lost in the process as there is no end goal in sight. Be honest and prepare yourself.

The process is essential — don’t forget that. Sure, you can set your goals, but once you do, you need to find out how to achieve them.

Goals don’t need to be massive, overarching targets. If the goal looms over you and fills you with self-doubt, then perhaps it is time to reassess.

As Michael Jordan said, take it step-by-step. Work out the small, day-to-day goals you need to accomplish to keep the process ticking over.

The goal is the starting point. You’d think it to be the ending too, but that shouldn’t be the case. As you grow, so do your goals. Say you reach your target of losing two stone since the New Year. Incorporate that success into the next goal — aim to tone up and get your abs showing (if that’s what you want).

The most important rule of them all — stick with it. It isn’t a means to an end; goal-setting and goal-achieving is a process. See where it takes you.

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