How important are goals to your success?
From a young age, and throughout our working lives, we are encouraged to pursue our dreams, set targets and work towards achieving them. These plans consciously and subconsciously affect our mind and body.
When you hit a goal or target, or accomplish an objective, the feeling within you is likely to be a combination of excitement, joy and, no doubt, relief. The same cannot be said for when you don’t achieve the intended outcomes you were expecting.
Setting goals provides focus, a sense of purpose, and motivation, and it helps support development. It’s an opportunity to provide a visual catalyst for what the future might look like. But what can you do to increase your chances of success and ensure that you give yourself the best possible opportunity of achieving each goal consistently?
There is a well-quoted Harvard study (which has, more recently, been claimed to be an urban myth) that has often been used to highlight the importance of goal setting. It is suggested that the study was initially conducted in 1979. Researchers asked a group of university graduates whether they had written goals with action plans for their achievements. The recorded responses were:
- 3% had clearly defined and written goals
- 13% had unwritten goals
- 84% had no goals, either clearly defined or unwritten
The follow-up study ten years later, which looked at those same students, claimed that the 3% who had clearly defined goals had been ten times more successful than the other 97% who had either unwritten goals or no goals whatsoever.
Could it have been as simple as just writing goals down and having a clearly defined plan? Studies in neuroscience have confirmed that, when we write something down, there is a greater chance of it being remembered. Individuals demonstrate better memory for material that they have created themselves than for material they have only read or been told. Reading, or any conversation you have, may help to create a mental image. The mental image is more likely to be remembered if you express it by writing it down.
Gail Matthews, a psychology professor from the Dominican University of California, believed the Harvard study to be a myth. After being unable to find the original research papers, she conducted her own study, titled ‘A study validating the effectiveness of written goals’.
The result of this study supported the positive impact of written goals. Those who wrote their goals down accomplished significantly more than those who did not. Gail’s research also highlighted factual evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools that increase effectiveness when setting goals:
- Write your goal down – this helps your brain to logically process and develop a solution.
- Accountability – tell someone your goal and report back to them each week on your progress.
- Commitment – develop a well-planned process or identify the steps needed to achieve the goal.
So, we know that writing goals down and creating a plan to achieve those goals is critical. But is there more that we can do when developing goals and action plans to enhance our motivation and drive?
Both psychologists and neurologists agree that setting goals and subsequently reaching them provides a sense of fulfilment that triggers the reward system in our brains, releasing a naturally occurring chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that supports brain function and is known to play a significant role in goal setting, as it acts as a motivator when we achieve the desired outcome. Once dopamine is released in our brain, we feel happy, energised and generally better. On the flip side, when we don’t achieve our goals, we deprive ourselves of dopamine, which, in turn, causes anxiety and fear.
As dopamine directly impacts on our goal-related behaviour and can be created and maintained, it’s advisable to develop smaller incremental targets that are regularly achievable and linked to the bigger overarching goal. In doing so, we create the opportunity for dopamine to be created on a more frequent basis, which will make us feel happier and more energised, while providing us with the added benefits of increased focus and the perseverance to keep pushing forward to achieve the next goal.
There is clear evidence that creating a purposeful goal-setting habit increases motivation and determination, transforming behaviour and creating a positive shift in mindset.
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