Write Down Your Goals if you Really Want to Reach Them

Write Down Your Goals if you Really Want to Reach Them

I don’t remember which book I read it in, though (typical of the way my memory works) I remember the couch I was sitting on when I read it. I read that the largest difference between Harvard grads who were financially successful and those who weren’t–all other factors such as age, career choice, family status, gender, pedigree, etc., aside–was that the successful minority (3%) had written down their goals. Whoa! Who knew that it was so important to write down your goals?  Since then, I’ve made a point to put my aspirations down on paper at least once a year.

Coming back from a business trip to Boston, I noticed that my brother had been in my apartment while I was away. He usually asks permission to spend time at my place. This time he didn’t ask, but there were the telltale signs: my bed was made differently than how I’d left it; my beer was gone; there were wine glasses in my dish drying rack; and there was evidence of fast food in my trash can. I didn’t mind–he left my place in good order–but it seemed he’d had some people over. Malcolm Gladwell writes in Blink about how a stranger can more accurately describe an individual’s personality from fifteen minutes in their living space than close friends can from hundreds of interactions. (This phenomenon is called thin slicing.) It made me wonder: What had these strangers gathered about me during their visit to my apartment?

Something that stood out to me as I surveyed the kitchen trying to see myself from a stranger’s perspective was the list of goals that I have hanging on my fridge. Even though I think a degree of public accountability and a certain shout-it-from-the-roof-tops attitude is necessary to actually reaching your goals, I felt a little embarrassed. My goals are broken down into daily, weekly, monthly, annual, five-year, and 10-year goals, and include little silly things like “rise early,” “take Mo on a walk,” “socialize,” “start a family,” “get published,” and even my two-year salary and savings targets. Most people don’t want others knowing what they make or have stashed away in the bank. That’s a little personal. Am I silly to have such explicit, structured goals?

My self-consciousness around my publicly visible, written, specific goals was perfectly timed. As I stared at my list of goals on the fridge, I was in the middle of getting ready for a sales seminar and networking event in Raleigh. The topic, I would soon discover, was “the formula for success.” It was presented by Tim McGuiness–so if this is his idea, he’ll get proper credit. Success, Tim told us, is the combination of Attitude, Ability, Skills, and Knowledge + GOALS. “How many of you have written down your goals?” he asked.  About a third of us raised our hands.

Why You Should Write Down Your Goals

I’m sure you’ve heard of SMART goals. Your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Suddenly I started to feel a little better about the specific, time-bound (i.e., weekly or yearly) goals I’d set for myself. They’re measurable. I know if I’ve reached them or not. Most of them are specific–and just last week I’d rewritten a few to be more specific as I’m getting clearer on my direction. This was all good news for a goal setter who has them pasted to her refrigerator.

Turns out that the Harvard (or Yale, as it is sometimes referenced) study on goal-setting is a fake. Dominican University decided to follow the fake with a real study on the matter.  What they found is that individuals who wrote their goals down, assessed the difficulty of achieving them (i.e., how realistic they were), had an accountability partner, and reported their progress on a weekly basis were the most successful in reaching their goals.  Simply having written your goals down, however, even without making a commitment to a friend, had a significant impact on the participants’ ability to reach their goals.  Thinking about your goals alone usually isn’t enough to get you across the finish line–and not having any at all goals will probably get you no where.

Do you write down your goals?  Do you know where you’re headed?  Do you know when you want to get there?  And–if you’re really serious about getting there–have you shared your goals with someone?  Even though it still feels a little like having been seen in my underwear, maybe it’s not so weird that I have my SMART goals posted on my fridge.  If nothing else, the experience has me thinking about and reassessing my commitment to them.  And what do you know?  It’s 9:47 and I’ve already crossed off three of them: rise early (6:30 on a Saturday), take Mo on a walk, and write a weekly blog post.  Today’s going to be a great day.

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