Researchers at Dominican University in California found that you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. But why does writing down goals make a difference? Neuroscientists say that the practice works on two levels.
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The first is external storage—you’re literally storing the goal in a physical location outside your brain, whether that’s a piece of paper, your computer, phone, etc. This provides an important physical reminder of your goal.
The other psychological process at play here is encoding. This is the first stage in forming memories, when your brain learns and processes new information. Your brain essentially decides whether to store the information in your long-term memory or discard (forget) it. By writing down your goals, your brain is more likely to remember and keep them present in your conscious on a daily basis.
Psychologist Edwin Locke established five criteria for setting effective goals: Clarity, Challenge, Commitment, Feedback, and Complexity. Goals should be clearly defined and measurable, the stakeholder must be involved in the goal-setting process (they can’t simply be handed a goal by a manager or teacher, for example), the process should involve regular progress reports and feedback (from a friend, teacher, manager, etc.), and goals should be challenging but achievable. The goal setter should have the necessary time and resources to accomplish their goal.
You should apply all five criteria when writing goals, both personal and professional. It’s important to make them as specific as possible. One study asked participants to rate the statement “My goal is so vividly described in written form that I could literally show it to other people and they would know exactly what I’m trying to achieve.” Unfortunately, less than 20% of participants said their goals “Always” met this level of specificity.
Describing your goals specifically and vividly actually increases your chances of success by 1.2 to 1.4 times. The wording can be simple— “My goal is…”—but make sure you write a thorough description of what you want to accomplish. Whether you succeed or not, these written goals can serve as a solid reference point when crafting future goals.
While people often think of their personal and professional goals in separate contexts, they’re actually two parts of a whole. Common personal goals—such as losing weight, exercising more, and eating healthier—also boost your energy and mental clarity, which can translate to more success at work. And common professional goals, like getting a promotion or a raise, can bring a sense of fulfillment that permeates your personal life as well.
So, when writing goals or resolutions, consider how your personal and professional ambitions complement one another. How can a change in your personal life help you achieve a goal in your professional life, and vice versa?
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