Achieving your goals: An evidence-based approach

To achieve goals, write them down, make a plan and solicit support from a friend.

Setting and attaining goals is an important step in achieving success academically, in the working world and in life in general. Often people identify well defined goals and start out gung-ho and motivated toward achieving them, only to look back weeks later wondering where they got off track. New research suggests strategies to overcome this problem, providing empirical evidence that writing down your goals, committing to action steps and developing a support network dramatically increases success in attaining them. Michigan 4-H Youth Development offers strategies to help you achieve the goals you set.

A widely accepted goal setting practice is to decide what you want to obtain or achieve and then write down a “SMART” goal. SMART goals are Specific in that they define the who, what, when and where of your goal. SMART goals should also be Measureable, so you can track your progress and they should be something that is personally within your ability to Attain. Finally, they should be something that is Realistic for you to achieve and set within a specific Timeframe.     

The next phase, where many goal setters fall short, is to plan the steps you need to take and then put your plan into action. Questions to consider include:

  • What activities do I need to complete to achieve my goal and in what timeframe?
  • What resources do I need?
  • Who can help me achieve my goal?

Additionally, you need to anticipate potential problems and brainstorm possible solutions. Find a supportive friend or network to help you stay on track with your goal and touch-base weekly with those friends to resolve issues and to assist in staying focused on success.

A recent study by Psychology Professor Dr. Gail Matthews confirms the importance of the steps above to achieve goals, providing empirical evidence that supports the practice of writing down goals and committing to action steps. Her research also highlights the effectiveness of goal setters soliciting a supportive friend to hold them accountable for completing their action steps through weekly progress updates. Matthews’s study broke participants into five groups, each with different instructions. The first group had unwritten goals, the second wrote their goals down, the third wrote down both goals and action commitments, the forth wrote goals and actions and gave them to a friend, and the fifth group gave their written goals and actions to a friend and also provided weekly updates.

The results of the study showed that 76 percent of participants who wrote down their goals, actions and provided weekly progress to a friend successfully achieved their goals. This result is 33 percent higher than those participants with unwritten goals, with a success rate of only 43 percent of goals achieved. This study shows the value of taking the time to write down your goals, create an action plan and develop a system of support to hold yourself accountable for achieving your goals.

Michigan State University Extension offers a variety of educational articles, programs and resources to learn more about setting career related, academic and personal goals.

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