Does writing down goals really work?

Does writing down goals really work?

Stop me if you have heard the following story:

“In 1953, researchers surveyed Yale’s graduating seniors to determine how many of them had specific, written goals for their future. The answer was 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”

This compelling “cause and effect” story has been a staple ingredient of personal development “gurus” in several books and audio programs: Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar to name just a few of the big goal-setting gurus.

Just one problem. The story is not true. No such study was done at Yale (or Harvard). When confronted with this information, Brian Tracy was reported as saying, “If it’s not true it should be.”  

I’ve been caught out myself. In my book, Business Execution for RESULTS I wanted to include the “Chivas Regal” story in my chapter on Strategic Positioning, a core component of the marketing strategy section. You may have heard it:

“Chivas Regal had been a struggling brand until its managers decided to raise its price to a level far above its competitors. Sales skyrocketed, even though nothing was changed in the product itself.”

Prior to writing the book I had used the Chivas Regal “cause and effect” story for years in client workshops, and I’m not the only one. It’s referred to on websites, in sober magazines like Time Magazine, and several marketing books. But when researching the content for my book, I discovered none of those “sources” gives any details. Unfortunately, it turned out to be yet another myth. It reinforced an important lesson for me: always check and verify!

Most of us accept compelling stories like this without question. We hear the words “research” and “Yale” (or Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc) and blindly accept whatever information comes next. We assume someone else has checked the facts. Unfortunately, our brains are easily fooled by sensational soundbites and compelling headlines delivered by authority figures (gurus, journalists, news reporters, politicians, celebrity business leaders, etc).

We especially fall for “cause and effect” stories, because we are suckers for a good narrative that explains things. As one of my favorite authors, Nassim Taleb writes, we are easily Fooled by Randomness. Another important lesson, one that greatly improved my “BS detector”, was when I learned about “Survivorship Bias“.

Should we write down goals?

It turns out that researchers at Dominican University are trying to replicate elements of the fictitious Yale research. Unfortunately, it’s not a longitudinal study, in that there has been no 20-year follow-up, but the researchers focused on 5 different strategies for achieving goals. 

Participants were assigned to 5 groups:

  • Group 1 – think about the business goals you want to accomplish in the coming month
  • Group 2 – write down the business goals you want to accomplish in the coming month
  • Group 3 – write goals down + list action steps to achieve these goals
  • Group 4 – write goals down + action steps + share these commitments with a friend
  • Group 5 – write goals down + action steps + share commitments with a friend + send a weekly progress report to a friend

Key findings at the end of the study: Group 5 achieved significantly more than all the other groups . The study found empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing down one’s goals.

I believe more research needs to be done to verify the findings, but my takeaway is that in order to maximize the likelihood of goal achievement (in a work environment) we should endeavor to:

  1. Write goals down (make sure they are SMART Goals)
  2. Scope out and write down the key Tasks 
  3. Make performance visible (Radical Transparency)
  4. Have someone else hold us accountable on a weekly basis


Until next time…