The power of written goals – Part 1

Setting goals and taking action

Many years ago I read about a study at Harvard University conducted between 1979 and 1989. Graduates of the MBA program were asked “Have you set clear written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?” The results of that question were:

  • 3% had written goals and plans
  • 13% had goals but not in writing
  • 84% had no specific goals at all

Ten years later Harvard interviewed the members of that class again and found:

  1. The 13% who had goals but not in writing were earning on average twice as much as the 84% of those who had no goals at all 2.
  2. The 3% who had clear, written goals were earning on average 10 times as much as the other 97% of graduates all together. The only difference between the groups is the clarity of the goals they had for themselves.

For many years I quoted that study, I was utterly convinced about the power of written goals. I diligently followed my own goal setting routine which I started 15 years ago and it seemed to work well. But more recently I decided to see if I could find the data from the original Harvard study for a book I was writing.

Apparently, the study did not exist.

What I did eventually find was an excellent article by Mike Morrison an established interim manager, coach, business adviser, mentor and trainer, who spent hundreds of hours researching whether in fact this study (or a previously quoted similar study purportedly dating back to 1953 at Yale University) actually took place.

They didn’t.

But many famous coaches and mentors such as Tom Bay (Look Within or Do Without), Brian Tracy (Goals!) and other self-development gurus helped to perpetuate the myth including Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins and none other than Mark McCormack who wrote What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School (How ironic that title now looks!).

So does this mean that there is no benefit from writing down specific goals? That writing it down just creates an illusion that makes us feel better but offers no actual benefit? Were my own successes perhaps no more than a version of the placebo effect?

writing goals down is a good start

Perhaps irrationally I still felt intuitively that there was some benefit in writing the goals down. My rationale was based on four points:

  1. Sight is the dominant sense and anything that we can see is likely to influence us more than using the other senses. There are plenty of studies that allude to this e.g. untrained interviewers making up their minds about candidates in the first minute of an interview before the candidate has even answered a question. Somehow being able to see the progress (or lack of it) towards my goals seemed more powerful.
  2. It felt like I was letting myself down if I had made little progress to report on when writing up my goals each month. I had made a commitment and it was up to me to show some progress!
  3. I felt I had made a contract with myself. After all, it was me who agreed to the goals, I signed up to them voluntarily no-one else made me.
  4. When I ticked off a goal I felt a great sense of achievement.

Perhaps it was simply the power of guilt (an often underrated emotion) that was driving me on. I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter if there wasn’t any academic support for my almost shattered theory of the efficacy of written goals. My intuition (sometimes referred to as the intelligence of the heart) was surely good enough, or was it? It might be fine for me to take a punt on my intuition as the basis for continuing to write down my goals but could I in all honesty coach other people to invest their precious time in what might be no more than a load of old tosh spouted by those glib (and very rich) American gurus such as Tony Robbins and Zig Ziglar?

Then Professor Gail Matthews from the Psychology Department of the Dominican University of California (not Yale or Harvard!) came to my rescue. She conducted a study which provided empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment and writing down one’s goals…which seemed to support my four instinctive thoughts that underpinned my fifteen years of writing personal goals.

So, there it is folks, having finally established that there is some value in writing down your personal goals my next article will provide some practical tips and techniques for doing so.

Further reading:

This was an article by Dr Rick Norris.

Take me to Part 2 now.

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