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How Important Is It to Write Down Your Goals?


Years ago, I read a book where the author described a study that made a compelling case for writing down your goals.

The study was said to have taken place in 1979, where members of Harvard’s graduating MBA class were asked whether they had a) set any specific goals, b) written those goals down, and c) come up with plans to accomplish them.

It turns out that 84% had no specific goals.

13% had goals, but hadn’t written them down.

And only 3% had specific, written goals, and plans for how to achieve them.

And what happened?

10 years later, the researchers followed up with the participants to see how they were doing. And they found that the 13% of participants who had goals were earning twice as much as the 84% who had no goals. And the 3% with written goals and plans to achieve them were earning 10 times as much as the other 97% combined!

That’s a pretty remarkable finding…except that this study doesn’t actually exist. No such study ever took place at Harvard (or Yale for that matter, as the same findings are often referenced in an equally fictitious 1953 Yale study)!

So when it comes to setting goals for the year ahead, how important is it to commit our goals to paper, and come up with plans for how we’re going to get there?

A study!

When Gail Matthews, a psychologist and faculty member at Dominican University, discovered that the Harvard goal study was a myth, she was curious to see what might happen if she ran a similar study to collect data of her own (Matthews, 2007).

She recruited 267 participants, representing professionals across a range of different professions, and randomly assigned them to one of five groups.

  • Participants in Group 1, were asked to think about some goals that they’d like to accomplish over the next four weeks.
  • Group 2 was asked to write down their goals.
  • Group 3 was asked to write down their goals and also come up with some actions to commit to that would take them closer to their goals.
  • Group 4 was asked to write down their goals, come up with action commitments, and also send these to a friend.
  • Group 5 was asked to write down their goals, come up with action commitments, send these to a friend, and also send them weekly updates on their progress.

Which group achieved the most?

After four weeks, Matthews checked in with participants to find out how they were progressing towards their goals.

And what did she find?

The results

The participants’ progress was measured in two ways. They were asked to rate their progress, and also report on the degree to which they actually achieved their goals.

And ultimately, there are a couple helpful things that we can take away from the data.

Thing #1: Are written goals better?

In terms of written vs. non-written goals, the group that wrote down their goals achieved more than the group that didn’t write down their goals.

So when planning out your goals for the coming year, writing them down does sound like the way to go!

Thing #2: Does accountability help?

So…one group achieved more in the four-week span than any other group. Namely, Group 5.

This is the group where participants not only wrote down their goals and came up with action plans, but also sent a friend their goals and action plans, and continued to share weekly progress updates.

As you might recall, Group 4 participants shared their goals and action plans with an accountability buddy too. And this led to decent results. But that extra step of providing weekly updates seems to boost success even further.

So as you make plans for the coming year, consider including an accountability or practice buddy in your practice routine. Chat with them about your goals and your action plans, and ask if you can send them regular progress updates as well.

It’s not clear how often you would have to send updates, and it probably depends on the situation, but you could always start with a week or two, and then adjust from there.

Caveats

I don’t believe the results of this study were published, and the available summary leaves out some details that probably would have been in the published version of the study.

So that leaves us with a few caveats to keep in mind.

For one, the study took place over a span of four weeks, which isn’t an especially long period of time. So it’s not clear how the findings might apply to more ambitious or long-term goals, like training for a marathon, preparing for a recital, or developing your sight-reading skills, which would require a lot more endurance and committed action over time.

Also, only 149 out of the original 267 participants completed the study. And it’s not clear from the summary what happened to the dropouts. If some of these participants dropped out because they didn’t follow through on their goals, that would of course potentially affect the results of the study as well.

Final thoughts

There is tons of research on goal-setting, and it’s easy to get lost in all the details, but based on the results of today’s study, it seems like a good place to start is:

  1. Write down some goals for the months ahead
  2. Come up with some action plans to help you get closer
  3. Ask a friend if you can send them your goals and action plan
  4. Continue to send them regular updates on your progress

References

Matthews, Gail, “The Impact of Commitment, Accountability, and Written Goals on Goal Achievement” (2007). Psychology | Faculty Presentations. 3. https://scholar.dominican.edu/psychology-faculty-conference-presentations/3

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