Don’t Underestimate the Simple Power of Writing Down Your Goals

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Having dreams is one thing; actually accomplishing them is quite another, especially given the fact that relentless fantasizing may actually reduce one’s odds of achieving goals. So it’s no surprise that motivation researchers are interested in how to best bridge this gap. New research suggests a surprisingly simple, powerful method, at least for students: Simply write down your goals. 

Over at NPR, education reporter Anya Kamenetz details the results of new research from University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who recorded what happened when 700 students did a short writing exercise over the course of two years. Specifically, Peterson asked the students to think about their lives, especially pivotal moments from the past that helped shape who they are. Then, they were to use these memories to help design a path toward achieving their future goals, something Peterson calls “self-authoring.” 

Because these were students, a prerequisite to achieving many of their larger goals involved staying in school and completing their coursework. And in the end, the students who did the self-authoring exercise completed more course credit and were more likely to have stayed in school than the students in the control group, who had not done the writing assignment. Even more important, Kamenetz notes, “after two years, ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students had all but disappeared.” In other words, the achievement gap between the minority and white students narrowed. 

Here’s what might help explain these results:

Peterson believes that formal goal-setting can especially help minority students overcome what’s often called “stereotype threat,” or, in other words, to reject the damaging belief that generalizations about ethnic-group academic performance will apply to them personally. … Writing down their internal motivations and connecting daily efforts to blue-sky goals may have helped these young people solidify their identifies as students. 

One big fat caveat here: Peterson’s got a personal, financial investment in this self-authoring idea, as he’s selling the curriculum online; so far, Kamenetz reports, some universities in the Netherlands are showing interest. But the idea behind self-authoring is sound, as it taps into what researchers call a growth mind-set, the idea that adopting the mind-set that your strengths and abilities are not fixed, but can improve over time and with effort, can have self-fulfilling results. And on a purely practical level, the writing exercise might have forced the students to consider the potential obstacles they might face and to connect the drudgery of everyday undergraduate life with their longer-term goals. The simple act of writing, as Peterson notes to NPR, “is more powerful than people think.”