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Does writing your targets down help achieve them?

Does writing your targets down help you achieve them?

5 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Setting goals helps us to guide our behaviour and motivates us to achieve our targets. Goal setting has been shown to have huge impacts in many environments: in schools, it improves academic performance of students; in the professional world, it improves employee and organisational effectiveness; and in sports, it increases athlete confidence and concentration.

But are we doing goal setting well enough? Are there simple ways to make this effect even greater? 

Recently, some have wondered whether writing down our targets makes us more likely to achieve them. Let’s take a closer look at the effects of goal setting on performance and the effect that writing down our goals has on achieving them…

Why set goals in the first place?

Before we can talk about the effects of writing down our targets, let’s discuss the impact of goal setting on performance.

The relationship between goal setting and performance was famously researched by Edwin Locke. In his 1968 paper, he investigated how to set goals to improve performance, identifying three main elements to consider: 

  1. Difficulty – Difficult goals lead to higher performance than easier goals. 
  2. Specificity – Specific goals lead to higher performance than a goal of “doing your best”.
  3. Intent – Our intentions play a big role in the decisions we make. 

In a review of over 10 years of research on goal setting, Locke concluded that 90% of the time, setting difficult and specific goals was more effective than setting easy or “doing your best” goals, leading to improved performance. 

Locke’s research also looked at how incentives can manipulate our goals and lead to improved performance. Some incentives include:

  • Instructions – Providing instructions was found to be most effective for goal setting when an individual accepts the instructions given, and has the ability to perform them
  • Time limits – When we accept time limits such as deadlines, we start to set sub-goals, helping us to achieve the overall goal. 

Locke’s research gives us an insight into the most effective ways to set goals to improve performance. Other research has shown that goal setting is key to self-regulation, and we have previously written about some of the key factors to effective goal setting.

But what about writing down our goals? Does writing down what we want to achieve help us get there? 

What does the research say about writing down goals?

Goal setting has huge potential to impact performance in education, in the workplace and even in our personal lives. However, when it come to writing down your goals, previous research has found many different things to take into consideration.

Research suggests that simply jotting down our goals is not an effective goal setting strategy, and does not impact our performance. This may be because it does not take much cognitive effort to list items, and so we might not fully commit to the goal. 

On the other hand, research suggests that challenging, specific and concrete goals improves performance and goal achievement more than vague and abstract goals. Research has also shown that goal setting is more effective when we make our goals public, for example, by sharing them with other people. 

Writing is an essential tool that improves academic performance and improves cognition in students. So is there a link between writing and goal setting? And if so, does writing down our goals improve performance? 

Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

How does writing down our goals affect our performance ?

Researchers looked at whether writing down personal and academic goals boosts academic performance

Participants included first-year university students from four consecutive cohorts on a Business Administration degree. Two cohorts completed a goal setting task, and two cohorts did not. 

The goal setting task consisted of three steps:

  1. Identifying personal goals – First, students were asked to write down 6-8 future goals.
  2. Goal attainment plan – Second, students evaluated and elaborated on these goals and explained how they would achieve them with specific plans.
  3. Public goal commitment statement – Lastly, students did a portrait photoshoot. This photo was published on the university’s website along with a personal goal statement from each student. For example: “I will work as hard as possible to achieve my goals”.

The researchers compared the academic performance of students who completed the goal setting task and students who did not: students who set goals performed 20% better academically than those who did not. 

Goal setting was especially effective when: 

  • Students completed all 3 steps in the task;
  • Students were more cognitively involved in goal setting, by using a higher quality and quantity of words when describing their goal attainment plan. 

Interestingly, even when the goal that students set themselves was personal, goal setting still improved academic performance. 

So, how should we write down our targets?

1. Be specific

With research showing that specific goals are more likely to be achieved, make sure that your goals are specific.

2. Give yourself a challenge

Setting yourself challenging yet realistic goals can motivate you to work hard and not underestimate your ability.

3. Have a detailed goal attainment plan

Using high quality vocabulary and making a detailed plan about how you will achieve your goals plays a big part in goal achievement. Giving yourself practical instructions can help with this.

4. Make a public goal commitment statement

Telling others that you are committed to achieving your goals may make you more likely to achieve them.

5. Give yourself a deadline

Giving yourself a time limit to achieve goals will encourage you to set sub-goals. These will help you to stay on track and motivated on the way to achieving your overall goals.

Final thoughts

So, does writing down goals improve our performance? The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is yes, if done correctly. 

When setting goals, ensure that you write them down and produce a goal attainment plan. These should be as detailed as possible, using high quality vocabulary, and should explain how you will achieve your goals. It can also help to make your goals public, stating your commitment.

We also recommend reading this blog from Ben Newmark, which has interesting tips to set better targets in schools.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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