32% fewer Americans reported making New Year’s resolutions this year.
Whether it’s uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, an unpredictable economy, the threat of armed conflict, or some other looming crisis, the next few months, weeks, and even days seem harder to envision than they used to. For many people, setting goals against that backdrop of uncertainty feels like an exercise in futility.
But goal-setting is a critical part of our personal growth and development. According to research by the Dominican University of California, there’s a direct correlation between setting goals and achieving success. People that regularly set and achieve goals have higher motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence, and autonomy.
In prior research on prospection, though, we also know that it isn’t just about setting any goals, but about setting goals that we feel a reasonable chance of achieving based on a realistic view of the situation. One of the primary skills of future-mindedness is the ability to set sensible goals.
As part of the research on future-mindedness, BetterUp Labs wanted to see which groups of people find it easy to set sensible goals and which groups struggle. Through a survey of 15,000+ professionals, BetterUp Labs asked several key questions about goal-setting, imagining outcomes, making plans, and flexible execution.
What the data say:
Analyzing the data, we found that women tend to start higher in goal-setting and make consistent improvement across age groups. Men start out with low goal-setting ability, improve, and then stay relatively consistent throughout the rest of their lives.
Interestingly, young men have the most difficulty setting sensible goals. They score significantly lower in this skill compared to young women, older men, and older women. What’s going on here?
One reason could be what many sociologists and psychologists call “extended adolescence” or “emerging adulthood.” Men (and to a large degree women as well) are taking longer to reach nearly all of life’s traditional milestones — getting their first job, getting married, buying a house, having a child, etc. — than their parents and grandparents did.
The theory of emerging adulthood proposes that advances in technology, shifting demographics in the workplace, the rise of post-high school education, and even the influence of pop culture have introduced a new developmental stage — one that is marked by identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between adolescence and adulthood, and a sense of broad possibilities for the future. It is possible that today’s young men are feeling less pressure to set and achieve goals than previous generations.
Another factor is the education gap between men and women that has been steadily growing over the last 40 years. A college degree is table stakes in many industries — even for the most junior roles. Today, 60% of all bachelor's degrees, 60% of master's degrees, 50% of medical and law degrees, and 42% of MBAs are earned by women.
This lack of education has held young men back in the knowledge economy. In urban centers, among those who are employed full-time, the average full-time salary of young women is 8% higher than that of their male peers. The gender wage gap is still very much a problem though, as men begin to out-earn women starting in their 30s.
While the reasons why young men are abandoning higher education are complex and varied, it seems possible that lower goal-setting skills and lack of degree attainment are connected. While low skill in setting goals might get in the way of getting into or completing college in the first place, it also stands to reason that missing out on the college experience could affect their ability to set sensible goals. Surrounding oneself with motivated peers, being exposed to new possibilities and perspectives, building employable skills, and receiving guidance from experienced professors are the foundations of university life. It’s not surprising that in our increasingly educated and information-driven society, many young men who are missing this experience are feeling rudderless.
Why this matters:
In addition to improving our well-being, confidence, and mental clarity, goal-setting helps us implement new behaviors by altering our brain structure. When we set goals, our brains literally optimize themselves to better achieve those goals. Goal-setting is closely linked to higher achievement across multiple aspects of life. Additionally, the more challenging the goal, the higher our performance.
Anyone struggling with setting goals is at a disadvantage. It’s critical that young adults receive goal-setting support so that they can have the highest chances of success.
Fortunately, goal-setting is a skill that can be learned and strengthened over time. Multiple frameworks exist to help people set and achieve goals. Increasingly, researchers who look at goal setting and attainment and habit formation understand that a large part of goal setting is creating a realistic plan around those goals. Equally important is being clear on why the goal matters to you and reminding yourself often.
Within this context, the popular method of SMART goals is still a helpful way of approaching goal-setting. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. A framework like SMART can add needed structure to our goal setting. It helps us ensure our goals are specific, held to a timeframe, and align with our values and life plan. While there are proven benefits to setting challenging goals, setting the bar too high often leads to feelings of discouragement and disappointment. Setting attainable goals helps us build momentum because we have more opportunities to celebrate small, but consistent wins.
The SMART method is one of many ways we can get better at approaching our goals and developing realistic plans to achieve them. One of the best and most impactful ways to strengthen this skill is through professional coaching. A coach can help you set and assess your goals, strengthen your skills and mindset, and provide accountability so you can achieve your desired outcomes.
Are you looking for help setting and achieving goals so you can reach your full potential? Get in touch with a BetterUp coach today.
Sr. Insights Manager