A friend I met 25 years ago suggested a life hack with such compelling evidence that I have followed it faithfully ever since. He told me about an Ivy League study on goal-setting, in which only 3 percent of a graduating class wrote down specific goals and a plan for how to achieve them. Years later, the story goes, those 3 percent were earning 10 times more than the rest of their peers.
This widely shared anecdote was later debunked by a Fast Company article. But I had already became a goal-setting devotee. Even without the backing of an Ivy League study, it makes sense that people who write down their goals would be more successful at attaining them. It’s a reminder of how to prioritize your time, if nothing else. As a parent, I ask my children to set personal goals at the start of the new year, academic goals at the start of the school year and spiritual goals at the start of Ramadan.
They don’t always write them down, but at least it starts a habit of being purposeful and intentional about what they want to accomplish.
I started to notice a disturbing pattern in my own list, however. A few of the things I wanted to do kept recurring year after year. And yet, I still haven’t finished writing my book, lost 10 pounds, learned a new language, completed a triathalon or mastered a musical instrument.
Perhaps I have been writing my goals all wrong.
There’s an entire industry around how to be more productive and accomplish what you set out to do. According to these experts, what I should have been doing all these years is writing smaller milestones toward larger goals, with measurable benchmarks and time limits. So, instead of saying I want to write a book, I should make a goal to write a certain number of words each day or week.
This creates a way to measure progress and hold yourself accountable. Each benchmark also needs a subset of concrete steps to use as a roadmap to get where you want to go. It helps to find a person to commit to a project alongside you. Reporting progress to one another increases both your chances of success. It’s also useful to remind yourself of why you want to make a change or complete an endeavor in the first place.
But just like simply wearing a FitBit won’t make you walk more or get more sleep, writing something down isn’t going to magically bring it to fruition.
Of course, it takes consistent and relentless work.
I thought about what has prevented me from completing some of what I set out do each year. Time is an easy scapegoat. Parents of young children and teens don’t get blocks of uninterrupted time to work on side projects outside our professional and personal obligations. But another culprit may be focus. It’s very easy to become distracted and lose the precious extra time we can carve out for ourselves.
It’s also important to accept that ambitions can change over time. If, by the end of a month or year, you haven’t made any progress toward what you thought you wanted, maybe you didn’t want it that badly, after all.
My son takes another approach to goal-setting. When I asked him if he had accomplished his goals, he listed the highlights of what he achieved this year. He couldn’t remember his specific goals, but he was happy about how the year turned out.
That may be better than a fake study.