Goals Survey Results: What Can We Learn From 2020?

Most of us achieved at least some of our goals in 2020, but our experiences differed depending on age, gender, and nationality

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Illustration by Yin Weihung

2020 was a weird year for being productive to say the least. We were curious: How did people fare in reaching their goals in 2020? What types of goals did they set? What contributed most to their success (or lack thereof…)? In the face of continued uncertainty, how are people approaching goal-setting in 2021?

Our 2020/21 Goals Survey unearthed both interesting and useful insights we can take with us into the new year:

  1. Demographics: Who responded to the survey?
  2. 2020 wasn’t a total bust
  3. Goal planning was more effective than habit change
  4. Those who fell short in 2020 aren’t giving up
  5. Shifting priorities toward relationships & entrepreneurship in 2021
  6. Age is more than just a number
  7. Men and women had very different experiences in 2020
  8. Family obligations were trickier for men to navigate (unless you’re American)
  9. Our 2020 goals, strategies, & obstacles depend on where we’re from

Demographics: Who responded to the survey?

A total of 1,667 people responded to the survey. Here’s how they broke down by age, gender, and nationality:

2020 wasn’t a total bust

Despite a year full of uncertainty, the majority of people who set goals for 2020 were able to complete some or most of them! 5.5% of respondents were super goal-completers, achieving all of their goals last year, while 7.4% didn’t achieve any of their goals. Over one-fifth of respondents didn’t set any goals at all in 2020.

Goal planning was more effective than habit change

The #1 way that people were able to achieve all of their goals in 2020 (as opposed to most or just some of their goals) was by establishing a clear, step-by-step plan for each one. These super goal-completers also reported higher rates of tenacity as the most instrumental tool in their goal-completing tool belt.

People who completed all their goals in 2020 were less likely to track their progress or incrementally change their behaviors than people who completed most or just some of their 2020 goals.

Though these goal-achieving strategies aren’t mutually exclusive, the results suggest that creating a concrete plan for how you’ll achieve a goal is more effective than incremental habit change or tracking your progress after the fact.

It’s not too late to make a plan for your 2021 goals 💪 Our 2021 Goals templates will give you a head start with step-by-step plans for organizing your finances, starting a side hustle, reading more books, and more…

Those who fell short in 2020 aren’t giving up

Of the 9% of respondents who didn’t complete any of the goals they set out for themselves in 2020:

  • 79% failed to complete goals that were health & fitness related.
  • 54% failed to complete goals that were career related.
  • 52% failed to complete goals that were learning & education related.

That said, these people aren’t quitters. 98% of people who didn’t achieve a single one of their goals in 2020 will get back in the saddle and try again in 2021:

  • 85% will come back and set new health & fitness related goals in 2021.
  • 62% will come back and set new career related goals in 2021.
  • 66% will come back and set new learning & education related goals in 2021.

Out of all survey respondents, nearly 81% will set new goals in 2021.

Shifting priorities toward relationships & entrepreneurship in 2021

More people are setting more of all types of goals across the board than they did in 2020.

The category with the biggest increase from 2020 to 2021? Family & relationships. 55% more respondents planned to set family & relationship goals in 2021 than set them in 2020. It seems that not being able to see loved ones in 2020 has made us even more aware of just how important those relationships are.

Growth in Business & Entrepreneurship goals came in at a close second. 51% more respondents planned to set business & entrepreneurship goals in 2021 than set them in 2020. Financial uncertainty and mass unemployment have lead to a boom in new  business filings as people seek out other forms of income.

Age is more than just a number

There were several key differences between age groups when it came to setting and completing goals in 2020.

Gen Z respondents – 18 to 24 years old – are a curious demographic. They:

  • Probably still have a killer metabolism… They set fewer health & fitness goals (59%) when compared to the general public (74%). That said, 77% of Gen Z-ers report that they’ll set health & fitness goals in 2021.
  • Are committed to their education: 80% plan to set learning & education goals in 2021.
  • Haven’t quite set their sights on a 9-5: They set far fewer career goals (38%) as opposed to the general public (53%), likely because many are still in school.
  • Are winning at self-care and mental strength: Of all respondents, they are the demographic that’s most likely to reward themselves for achieving a goal and to cite tenacity as the biggest factor in accomplishing their goals.
  • Surprisingly, Gen Z-ers reported health issues as their biggest hurdle at the same rate as respondents 55 and older. Gen Z-ers were almost three times as likely as Millenials to cite health issues as their biggest hurdle. While one of the other options to answer the question “What was the most difficult hurdle to overcome when working towards your goals in 2020?” was  “anxiety”, our survey didn’t explicitly differentiate between mental and physical health issues. These results could reflect the fact that Gen Z-ers are more likely to report mental health concerns and see them as equivalent to any other health issue.

There were also big differences between age groups when it came to the biggest barriers to overcome on the way to achieving goals:

  • People 55 years old and up were the most likely age group to struggle with staying motivated and the least likely to struggle with mental fatigue. With fewer family and work demands, this age group may feel like they have more time and energy, but struggle with maintaining a routine and filling their newfound time with activities that feel purposeful.
  • Meanwhile, people 45 to 54 years old were more likely than other age groups to struggle with staying focused, but the least likely to struggle with anxiety.
  • People between the ages of 34 and 54 were the most likely age groups to cite family obligations their biggest hurdle to overcome. These age groups are the most likely to have young children as well as elderly parents to care for.
  • Money becomes less of a barrier to achieving your goals the older you are. Gen Z-ers were the most likely to cite money as their biggest hurdle to overcome at 4% compared to respondents 55+ years of age and older at just 1.5%.

Men and women had very different experiences in 2020

While the majority of men and women were able to complete at least some of their goals, men were more than twice as likely as women to report achieving all of their 2020 goals.

Mental fatigue was the #1 obstacle for women (24%) to overcome to achieve their goals in 2020, whereas lack of motivation (27%) was the #1 obstacle cited by men. This may reflect the fact that women often work a “double shift” taking on the majority of household responsibilities in addition to their jobs. Even when household labor is more evenly distributed, women often take on a greater mental load acting as “project manager” of the household. According to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: “Our data shows women who are working full-time are doing 71 hours a week of caregiving and housework, that’s 20 more hours than their husbands. Twenty hours a week is half a job.”

Women were more likely than men to set goals of all types, except for business & entrepreneurship. The biggest differences between the types of goals women and men set were in health & fitness – 62% of women vs 56% of men – and home-related goals – 32% of women compared to 27% of men.

Men who achieved their goals most often rewarded themselves by taking time to relax. In contrast, women most often celebrated by sharing the news with friends, family, and colleagues.

Family obligations were trickier for men to navigate, unless you’re in the United States

14% of all respondents reported that family-related obligations interfered with their ability to complete their goals in 2020, though only 10% believe that family-related complications will continue into 2021. Surprisingly, overall, men were twice as likely as women to see family obligations as a top obstacle to achieving their goals in 2020.

Based on data from 53 countries, the United Nations estimates that unpaid care work would add up to USD $11 trillion annually,  9% of global GDP. Across every region and country, women continue to do the vast majority of that care work. According to the UN report, “women dedicate on average 3.2 times more hours to unpaid care work than men. This amounts to a total of 201 working days for women and 63 working days for men with no remuneration.”

Yet our survey suggests that, overall, men were more likely than women to see family obligations as the biggest barrier to achieving their 2020 goals. It may be that women had already baked family obligations into their 2020 goal expectations from the start whereas pandemic shutdowns brought family obligations more to the forefront in men’s lives compared to previous years.

That said, the gender differences varied by country. Looking at just the United States, the opposite appeared to be true: American women were twice as likely as American men (22% vs 11%) to identify family obligations as their top obstacle to achieving their 2020 goals.

While the pandemic has placed burdens on both working mothers and fathers in the United States, women have left the workforce in greater numbers and continue to take on the majority of unpaid care work. Our survey results suggest that the unequal distribution of unpaid care work represented a bigger obstacle to American women than women in other countries.

Differences in goals across nationalities

The top 5 nationalities of the survey respondents were:

    • 25.5%: American
    • 8.2%: German
    • 5.2%: British
    • 4.4%: Russian
    • 4.0%: Brazilian

When it came to the types of goals we set for 2020:

  • The desire to improve in health and fitness was universal. Health & fitness was the top goal category across all nationalities though Russians and Germans seem to be less concerned about health & fitness than Americans, Britons, and Brazilians.
  • Britons appear to be less oriented toward learning and education. Of the top five nationalities, people from the United Kingdom were the least likely to set learning & education goals in 2020.
  • Germans seemed less concerned about money. People from Germany were far less likely than other top nationalities to set financial goals in 2020 and no Germans cited money as a main obstacle to achieving their goals. This could be due to the fact that saving for the future is already such a deeply ingrained national habit in Germany. Interestingly, Germans were also the least likely to set career goals.
  • Americans appeared to be more oriented toward the home. People from the United States were more likely than other nationalities to set home-related goals in 2020. With more time spent at home last year, people took on various DIY and home improvement projects from painting walls to gardening to major renovations. American home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s benefited greatly from this pandemic-induced “nesting instinct” reporting 25% and 30% increases in sales respectively.
  • Russians made relationships a priority. People from Russia were more likely than the other top nationalities to set family & relationship goals.
  • Brazilians seemed less  focused on entrepreneurship. They were less likely than the other top nationalities to set business & entrepreneurship goals.

When it came to achieving our goals:

  • Russians seem to like planning – tracking their progress not so much. People from Russia were by far the most likely to explain their success with establishing a clear step-by-step plan and were the least likely to track their progress with an app, journal, or similar.
  • Americans and Britons know there’s no “I” in goals. People from the United States and the United Kingdom were far more likely than other nationalities to rely on others to hold themselves accountable.
  • Germans and Britons tend to not rely on mental toughness. They were far less likely than other nationalities to credit tenacity for their success.
  • Britons tend to not believe in incremental change. Compared to other nationalities, they were less likely to believe that changing their behavior a little bit every day contributed to achieving their goals.
  • No one found extrinsic rewards particularly effective. Very few people from any nationality said that “Rewarding myself with something at the end” was most instrumental in helping them achieve their 2020 goals. This result suggests that intrinsic motivation – achieving goals for their own sake – is more effective for achieving goals goals for an external reward.

When it came to the biggest obstacles to achieving our goals in 2020:

  • Britons seemed to have a hard time staying motivated while Americans were just plain tired. People from Great Britain were the most likely to cite a lack of motivation as the biggest obstacle to achieving their goals while Americans were most likely to cite mental fatigue (can’t imagine why…).
  • Britons and Germans are less anxious than the rest of us? Or are at least less likely to say that anxiety was a major hurdle to achieving their goals. “I expect this is more ‘stiff upper lip’ or denial that makes this so low,” says Samuel, a Doister from the UK. “The atmosphere of the public in the UK at the moment is very anxious.”
  • Brazilians don’t seem to feel that family obligations held them back. They were the least likely to say that family obligations were a major hurdle to achieving their goals.
  • For better or worse, Brazilians and Americans pushed through health issues to achieve their goals. Though Brazil and the United States rank #46 and #75 in the world in life expectancy (a proxy for overall health), people from those countries were far less likely to cite health issues as a top reason for not achieving their goals. This may be a reflection of policies and culture that encourage pushing through health issues rather than slowing down to address them.
  • It appears that Germans’ goals changed throughout the year while Russians stayed the course. Germans were more likely than other nationalities to cite changing goals as their biggest obstacle while zero Russians said the same.
  • Money is a bigger obstacle in some countries than others. Nearly 13% of Russians cited money as the biggest obstacle to achieving their goals. The next closest group were Brazilians at just 5%. Meanwhile zero Britons or Germans surveyed said the same.


Step-by-step plans to increase your odds of success in 2021

Are you one of the 81% of people who set goals for 2021?  Our 2021 Goals Templates will give you a step-by-step plan for everything from organizing your finances to starting a side business and more.

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