By Mark Murphy
March 21, 2022
I’m sure you’ve heard that if you want to achieve a goal, you need to write it down. I know it sounds a bit cliché, but it actually does work.
One of my studies, called "The Gender Gap and Goal-Setting," found that both men and women need to do a much better job of writing down their goals (although men did perform a bit better than women on this issue). Study participants were asked to rate the question “My goal is so vividly described in written form (including pictures, photos, drawings, etc.) that I could literally show it to other people and they would know exactly what I’m trying to achieve.” Sadly, fewer than 20% of people said that their goals were ‘Always’ written down this vividly.
Vividly describing your goals in written form is strongly associated with goal success, and people who very vividly describe or picture their goals are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people who don’t. That’s a pretty big difference in goal achievement just from writing your goals on a piece of paper.
So why does writing your goals help? It’s an important thing to know; after all, it might seem like a lot of extra work to write something down when you can just as easily store it in your brain, right?
Writing things down happens on two levels: external storage and encoding. External storage is easy to explain: you’re storing the information contained in your goal in a location (e.g. a piece of paper) that is very easy to access and review at any time. You could post that paper in your office, on your refrigerator, etc. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to know you will remember something much better if you’re staring at a visual cue (aka reminder) every single day.
But there’s another deeper phenomenon happening: encoding. Encoding is the biological process by which the things we perceive travel to our brain’s hippocampus where they’re analyzed. From there, decisions are made about what gets stored in our long-term memory and, in turn, what gets discarded. Writing improves that encoding process. In other words, when you write it down it has a much greater chance of being remembered.
Neuropsychologists have identified the “generation effect” which basically says individuals demonstrate better memory for material they’ve generated themselves than for material they’ve merely read. It’s a nice edge to have and, when you write down your goal, you get to access the “generation effect” twice: first, when you generate the goal (create a picture in your mind), and second, when you write it down because you’re essentially reprocessing or regenerating that image. You have to rethink your mental picture, put it on the paper, place objects, scale them, think about their spatial relations, draw facial expressions, etc. There’s a lot of cognitive processing taking place right there. In essence, you get a double whammy that really sears the goal into your brain.
Study after study shows you will remember things better when you write them down. Typically, subjects for these types of studies are students taking notes in class. However, one group of researchers looked at people conducting hiring interviews. When the interviewers took notes about their interviews with each of the candidates, they were able to recall about 23% more nuggets of information from the interviews than people who didn’t take notes. Parenthetically, if you’re being interviewed for a job, and you want the interviewer to remember you, you better hope he or she is taking notes.
It’s not just general recall that improves when you write things down. Writing it down will also improve your recall of the really important information. You know how when you’re in a classroom setting there’s some stuff the teacher says that’s really important (i.e. it’ll be on the test) and then there’s the not so important (i.e. it won’t be on the test)? Well, one study found that when people weren’t taking notes in class, they remembered just as many unimportant facts as they did important facts (there’s a recipe for a “C”). But when people were taking notes, they remembered many more important facts and many fewer unimportant facts (and that, my friends, is the secret of “A” students). Writing things down doesn’t just help you remember, it makes your mind more efficient by helping you focus on the truly important stuff. And your goals absolutely should qualify as truly important stuff.
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