It’s that time of year when we start thinking about goals for next year. Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Research suggests that roughly 50 percent of Americans do, but only about 8 percent actually achieve them.
It turns out, there’s a science to goal setting, and taking the right steps can greatly increase your likelihood of accomplishing what you want to.
One of those steps is writing your goals down. It may sound simple, but the very act of putting your goals in writing forces you to develop some clarity around them. It also gets your subconscious mind thinking about them, even when your conscious mind is occupied with other things. In fact, some studies suggest that writing your goals down on a regular basis makes you 42 percent more likely to achieve them.
Why writing your goals is so powerful
Why does writing your goals down makes such a difference? It has to do with how our brains are wired. As you may be aware, the left hemisphere of the brain is logical, and the right side of the brain is more creative. The two sides of the brain are connected by a bundle of neural fibers that allow electrical signals to travel from one side to the other.
If you’re only thinking about your goals, you’re only using one side of the brain — the right side. But when you write them down, you’re also sending this information into the left side — the logic center. This opens up communication between the two sides of the brain and activates neural pathways — and creating new neural pathways is necessary in order to develop new habits.
The reticular activating system
The act of writing also stimulates a part of the brain known as the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS serves as a filter between your conscious mind and your subconscious mind, helping your brain process incoming messages. Our brains receive thousands of pieces of information every second — it’s impossible to process it all, so the RAS filters this information and tells your conscious brain what to pay attention to.
Have you ever noticed that once you prioritize something, you start noticing it more? For example, you start thinking about buying a certain type of car, and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere you go. This doesn’t mean that there are suddenly more Toyota Corollas on the road; it just means that you’re noticing things your brain wasn’t paying attention to before.
Setting goals works the same way. When your reticular activating system knows that something is important, it will start paying more attention to it. Writing down your goals on a regular basis keeps them at the top of your mind, so you’re more likely to pay attention to actions that will help you achieve them. So if your goal is to eat a healthier diet, activating your RAS can help you pay more attention to your food choices.
How to write your goals
A few general guidelines for writing down your goals will help increase your likelihood of achieving them:
1. Write them down regularly. If you just write them down once and set them aside, you will forget about them again. To keep them at the top of your brain, write them down on a regular basis. Try to do it every day, or at least a few times a week.
2. Make your goals specific, measurable, and positive. Instead of focusing on something you want to stop or get rid of — like losing weight or watching less TV — focus on the outcome. I weigh 135 pounds or I read for one hour every evening are specific, positive, and measurable goals.
3. Don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible given your present circumstances. If you want to buy a bigger house but you don’t think you can afford it right now, write it down anyway.
4. Write your goals in the first person. They should start with “I.” Your RAS can’t influence other people. So instead of My spouse pays more attention to me, reframe your goal into something personal, such as I have a loving, supportive relationship with my spouse.
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