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Goal Setting

The Power of Written Goals

August 21, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Goal Setting

The Power of Written Goals

In itself, the activity of goal setting is part of a general process of planning for the future. What deliberate goal setting attempts to achieve is to provide a translation vehicle or language from a broad intent to a tangible step or task that is likely to achieve the intent in some fashion. At a personal level this is easy to illustrate. For instance, we may intend to stop smoking or to lose weight for example but will not do so until we set a goal (to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked a day by a given amount until we quit altogether or to lose a certain number of pounds, usually in a given timeframe).

In general terms then, the process of setting goals helps you choose where you want to go (whether it is a work goal or a life goal for that matter). By knowing precisely what you want to achieve directionally, you know where you have to concentrate your efforts and hopefully you will also quickly spot the distractions that would otherwise lure you from your course. However, one of the main mistakes that people make in setting goals is to spend little or no time on ‘research’ or information gathering. If this is not done properly or at all, the risk that is run is that a goal may be shaped without a context or in the knowledge that it is grounded in an existing reality (and is therefore just a “pipe-dream”).

For example, even if an athlete dreams of winning a gold medal ultimately, he or she should look at not only his/her own performance but the performance of others in the same sport; the variety that can be created by conditions, equipment and other factors, etc. Goals can then be set for position, distance, time and other measurable targets in the context of this information.

So why is writing goals down on paper so important?

At its most simple level then goal setting essentially involves thinking about what needs to be achieved but then even more critically, in order for success to be maximized, writing down a specific objective that a person, a team or a whole organization wants to achieve. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly it helps to clarify to the individual or group what he or she aims to do in very concrete and meaningful ways. Secondly, written goals serve to make it clear to others what needs to be done (with actual targets or outcomes being described as opposed to loose intentions).

The simple step of recording goals for a new enterprise might sound like a very simplistic activity and one that can be “dashed off” in a few minutes. In reality, the vast majority of people spend little or no time on writing down their goals and thereby miss out on a huge potential benefit.

Although the research was originally carried out in the 1950’s, proof of the benefits of written goals was carried out by Yale University on a large group of students. These students, at the end of their degree courses were invited (voluntarily) to write down their specific career goals. Despite the instruction, only 6 people (or 3% of the entire population) actually did as they were told and produced a written sheet of personal career goals.

Twenty years later, each member of the group was re-contacted to see how successful they had been, as measured by their personal wealth accumulated. Remarkably, the six people (3% of the group) had accumulated slightly more in earnings than the rest of the population (97%) put together.

All three people confirmed that their written goals had specifically focused their attention and helped them to achieve success.

So what are you waiting for? Whether you are leading an organization, a small team or just yourself, just invest a little time in thinking carefully and crafting one or even a few well-written goals and refer to them frequently to guide your actions.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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