The surprising truth about written goals


I was at a presentation last night. The speaker cited the now infamous 1953 Yale University goal setting study which conclusively proved that having written goals dramatically increases the likelihood of achieving them. I was familiar with the study and made a note to post it on this blog:

In 1953, researchers surveyed Yale’s graduating seniors to determine how many of them had specific, written goals for their future. The answer: 3%. Twenty years later, researchers polled the surviving members of the Class of 1953 — and found that the 3% with goals had accumulated more personal financial wealth than the other 97% of the class combined.

Amazing, isn’t it? The only problem is it’s not true. The study never took place.

Okay, that’s disappointing but it doesn’t matter, everyone knows that written goals are important, right?

A few minutes with my Uncle Google found a different study that purports to prove the hypothesis of the fictional one. In this study, the researcher found that,

. . .people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who merely formulated goals.

I’m no scientist, but I don’t think this is dispositive of the issue. For one thing, they didn’t test a group who agreed to be accountable to a friend and provide weekly updates but who did not have written goals.

In the early 1920s, Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich, et. al.) conducted exhaustive interviews with 500 of the most successful men of his day. Hill concluded unequivocally that written goals were a key factor in their success and articulated a six-step process for creating them. These include putting them in writing and reading them aloud twice a day. But was it the writing of their goals that made their achievement more likely or was this simply a common trait among these highly driven individuals who would have achieved their goals anyway?

Here’s what I think. I think the value of a written goal isn’t in the written document itself (or in the continual reading of it) but in the process of thinking about and choosing the goal. As you spend time thinking about what you want and what you don’t want, as you winnow down the multitude of possible goals, you go through a process that leads to clarity. Clarity leads to focus, and focus leads to making decisions and engaging in activities that are consistent with achieving the goal.

Simply put, if you know what you want and you continually focus on it, you are more likely to get it. Putting the goal in writing isn’t necessary.

In fact, putting a goal in writing might actually make it harder to achieve.

How often have you chosen a goal only to later realize that it was not what you really wanted. It might have been your parents’ goal or a goal you thought you should be aiming for, but in reality, it wasn’t what you really wanted. If you write and stay focused on a goal that you don’t really want, you’ll either achieve it and be unsatisfied, or not achieve it and wonder why goal setting doesn’t work for you.

Goals should be flexible, not engraved in stone (or on paper). They are a starting point; only sometimes are they your true destination. Feel free to change your goals, written or otherwise, if they no longer serve you.

How do you know if you chose the right goal? That’s simple. When you think about it, how do you feel? Your feelings will tell you, unfailingly, whether it is or is not something you really want.

Be honest with yourself about how you feel and trust your feelings. If you don’t feel good when you think about a goal, or if you don’t feel good enough, don’t try to change how you feel, change the goal. It might need only a small change–the due date perhaps or the amount of money sought–or you might need to choose a completely different goal–but choose a goal that feels good when you think about it.

The answer is inside you. Put it on paper if you want.