The Psychology Of Writing Down Goals

This is a guest post by Rebecca Temsen that was first published here.

There’s a simple trick to make your dreams come true more easily and faster, and it doesn’t cost a lot of time or effort: Writing down goals.

If you go to any goal-setting workshop, the coordinator will tell you that to achieve the goals you need to write them down. You can use a list of goals, a vision board, etc. but it’s important is to put them in writing.

It’s important is to put them in writing

Unfortunately, goal-setting workshops are usually a little less forthcoming about the psychology of writing down goals. They say that it’s something that you have to do, but they rarely answer the question, “Why should you write your goals down?”

That writing out goals works is indisputable. So we do want you to write out your goals. What we will do in this post, however, is explain why you should.

Let’s Start With Some Statistics

So, why should you take the extra few steps to write out your goals or create a vision board? How about because a Harvard Business Study found out the following related to goal-setting:

  • Eighty-three percent of respondents had no goals.
  • Fourteen percent of respondents had plans but had not written them down. The study found that this group was ten times more likely to succeed than those without any goals.
  • Three percent of respondents had written down their goals. They were three times more likely to succeed than the group who had some plan in mind.

What this research made clear is that if you want the best possible results, you need to define your goals and then write them down.

A study by the Dominican University of California took a slightly different stance. They divided participants into five groups.

  • The first group had to think about their goals, and rate them according to various factors but not write them down. This group achieved a 43 percent overall success rate or progressed at least part of the way to attaining their goals.
  • The second group did the same, but this group wrote the goals down.
  • The third group did the same as the second but also wrote their action commitments down.
  • The fourth group did all of that, and also shared their action commitments with a friend.
  • The final group did everything the others did, but also sent their friends updates. This group had the highest success rate, at 76 percent.

What we learn from this study is that writing down your goals, and what actions you take to achieve them, and then sharing these and your progress with a friend gives you the best chance of success.

Another study, called “The Gender Gap and Goal-Setting” run by Mark Murphy found that all of us need to be much better at writing our goals down. He went on to say that written goals should include pictures, drawings, etc.

He aimed to make the goal so clear that he could show it to someone else and they’d know what he was trying to achieve. His point? The goal must be clearly defined and written out. He found that less than one-fifth of respondents put that kind of detail into writing their goals.

Why is a vivid written description so important? It helps you to picture your goal and this, in turn, makes you up to 1.4 times more likely to succeed than someone who didn’t write anything down.

That’s a 1.4 times higher chance of success by just committing your goals to paper! I’ll bet you’re already reaching for a pen and paper to get those goals down, aren’t you?

That’s a 1.4 times higher chance of success by just committing your goals to paper!

So now we know the statistics, let’s have a look at why writing goals down improves your chance of success so drastically.

Fountain pen writing on a paper

What Writing Does For Your Brain

When you were at school, you no doubt took copious notes during class. Why? Because it helped with recall. But why does it help so much?

There are two basic levels that writing occurs on: encoding and external storage. Now, external storage is the actual piece of paper that reminds you of the goal you’ve written. You’ll put up your list of goals somewhere so you’ll see them every day to be reminded of them daily.

That’s part of what made your note-taking such a successful memory aid in school. You could refer to the notes and instantly remember the lesson.

Encoding is where things get a lot more interesting. Encoding is what happens in the brain when we see something, and the information gets transferred to the hippocampus for analysis. This part of the brain is where the brain decides what is important to store in the long-term memory and what can it can discard.

In the decision-making process, the brain will have to sift through a lot of information. How does it know if something is important to you? Well, if your mind sees that it is something that you have written down, it will assign greater importance to it. As a result, it is more likely to sink in and be remembered.

Neuropsychologists call this the “generation effect” and have found that people have better recall for information that they’ve created themselves than for something that they’ve read. So, if you read a travel guide to Egypt, for example, and think about going there, your brain might remember.

But, if you then take that travel guide and rewrite the salient points in your own words, your brain knows that this information is more important than the information that you just read. The mind understands that you want to focus more on it and so will be more inclined to recall it later.

You can boost this effect even more by adding in pictures, creating links between related goals, etc. Maybe you can draw on an Egyptian flag, or find a piece of papyrus to add to the sheet. That way, not only can you engage your sense of sight, but also your sense of smell and touch.

And, when it comes to boosting recall, the more senses that you can engage, the better.

Why Recall Is Important For Goals?

When you create a goal, you want to focus on it and work toward achieving it. By searing the details of that goal into your brain, you are telling it how important that goal is to you.

As a result, your brain will work on finding ways to make that goal a reality, even when you’re not consciously thinking about it. So, while we generally easily remember our goals, writing them down ensures that we don’t forget a single detail, and this can be essential to whether we achieve them or not.

Writing Helps You Clarify Your Goals

Just as important, however, writing your goals out helps you see them in black and white. This added layer forces you think out your goals more clearly and define them more absolutely. Once you see them on paper, you can start to tweak them.

As you write out your goals, you will quickly see how specific they are and whether or not they could be better defined. So, that goal to “lose some weight” becomes a firm, “lose ten pounds.”

Writing Leaves No Wriggle Room

Let’s say that you’ve decided you want to lose a pound a month and you resolve to do so in your mind. Things start well, but maybe your motivation starts to lag a bit, and you get forgetful. Did you start the year saying a pound a month, or was it that you wanted to lose six pounds?

Or maybe that you just wanted to lose a bit of extra weight. If you haven’t written down your goals, it can be easy to fudge the lines a bit when your motivation flags. When they’re there in front of you in black and white, however, you are not going to get away with trying to wriggle out of the goal.

Goals reminder on a calendar

Written Goals Are A Constant Reminder

The other advice that you may have read about when it comes to goal-setting is to post the goals up somewhere that you’ll see them every day. We want to change that up a bit. Sure, do put them up in a visible spot every day, but don’t leave them in the same place for more than a week or so at a time.

Why? Once your brain gets accustomed to seeing the goals in that place, it’s going to stop noticing them. And that’s not going to do you much good.

What we suggest is to move the goal sheet around every week so that it is continually catching your eye.

Another great tip that we find extremely useful is to place a copy of the written goal sheet in our diary. We stick ours in the front of the journal, and every time we open it up for the day, we read through the list. Seeing goals every day helps reaffirm them in our minds.

An alternative is to clip the list into your diary for the next day. That way, when you open your log the following day, the list is there. Read it through, and then transfer it over to the next page.

If you still find that this is not working for you, another alternative is to take a look at your goals on a daily or weekly basis and write them out again in a small notebook. Technically, you could use a piece of scrap paper, but a notebook will re-emphasize the importance of each goal.

Do you ever remember writing lines out at school? We had a few sessions like that at school, and, even though it was a long time ago, we can still recall what we had to write out.

Copying out your goals every day, alternate day, or even once a week is a little bit of a schlep, but it won’t take you long. And, while you’re doing it, you are sure that you are reminding yourself of what those goals are.

And, of course, you are reinforcing the importance of the goals for the brain. The subconscious will think, “Wow, my conscious self is going on about these goals, they must be important.”

Reviews Are Important

Another reason for writing down your goals is that it makes it easier to review them and see your progress. Reading that you want to lose ten pounds every morning helps you to set your intention for that day more clearly.

You’ll want to make healthier choices, and see where you can improve.

Goals Checklist

Cross It Off The List

The final reason for writing out your goals is that you then get the satisfaction of crossing them off the list. You no doubt know how satisfying it is to cross items off a to-do list. Now take that feeling and multiply many times over when it comes to meeting a goal you have been working toward.

That’s A Wrap

All in all, writing out your goals makes sense from many different perspectives. It:

  • Highlights the importance of the goal to your brain, and that allows your mind to stay primed for opportunities that might help you achieve your aims.
  • Ensures that you properly clarify each goal and that you understand it completely.
  • Makes it possible for you to visualize your goals more clearly, especially if you combine the words with actual images and other sensory cues.
  • Leaves no room for misunderstandings or errors at a later stage.
  • Acts as a reminder of what your goals are, goals you can easily review along the way.
  • Gives you the opportunity to cross your goals off the list as you achieve them.

Overall, there is a saying that is most apt here. “A goal that is not written down is nothing more than a wish.” Make sure that you record each goal, and then you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve.

It’s that simple – write out your goals, and review them regularly for the best chance of achieving them.

Like this post? Share it!