Personal goals are the things we want to achieve in our lives. They are much more meaningful than the basic things we need to do to survive. Unlike short-term objectives and daily routines, long-term life goals drive our actions and attitudes over a longer period.
Because all life goals are personal, these ambitions can take a variety of forms. They lay the foundation for a unique sense of direction and serve as a guide as we seek happiness and well-being.
Psychology refers to personal goals as action plans we set for ourselves — action plans to guide us toward the right decisions at the right times. Edwin Locke, a pioneer in the field of goal-setting and creator of the SMART acronym, performed a study on working professionals, and found that individuals who had set ambitious goals for themselves had a better performance and output over those who did not set goals.
Why should we set personal goals?
Almost all of us have dreams. We know what we want to try, and what makes us happy. We might have a vague idea how we can achieve those dreams. Setting personal goals and creating a concrete plan can be beneficial in helping us along the path toward success.
Setting goals can promote happiness
When goals are based on personal values, they have meaning to us. Purposefully striving for something bigger and better is a key element in “the happiness theory” in psychology. Along with positive relationships, achievements, emotions and engagements, it contributes to what we think of as “the good life.”
Personal goals are the things we envision for ourselves beyond our daily existence. They can be pursued in unique and personal ways — and provide a sense of fulfillment when we get them. According to 2016 research from Ryan & Huta, just the act of striving to achieve goals can sometimes lead to happiness.
Goals encourage us to use our strengths
When we look at what matters most to us, our passions and inner strengths become clear. Setting personal goals and action plans for ourselves is beneficial on its own. But using our personal strengths to get to these goals brings a whole new set of benefits.
Several studies have shown that using your strengths can increase self-confidence (Crabtree, 2014), encourage our engagement (Sorensen, 2014) and promote feelings of satisfaction and good health (Proyer, 2013). Utilizing strengths in pursuit of goals is a good thing for well-being.
Goals can clarify our behavior
The theory of goal-setting developed by Edwin Locke places intentions at the center of behavior. The very act of goal-setting directs our attention to how, why, and what we want to achieve. This shifts our intentions toward these goals, increasing focus and motivation.
Merely writing down and recording your goals is not enough to generate the kind of drive that leads to success — but it gives you something to commit to. By writing down and acknowledging your goals, you can take appropriate actions in your efforts to achieve them.
Goals allow us feedback
If we set a plan for ourselves, we can assess where we are, and take note of the progress we make. We can even chart this progress and development. This visual feedback gives us the insight necessary to adjust our behavior. When the feedback is positive, our brains release dopamine, giving us an instant physical reward.
By opening ourselves up for feedback, we can assess and re-align our behaviors. Doing so keeps us on track to achieve long-term goals and improve the chances of success.
Why do we need to write it down?
We’ve all heard it before, but writing down your goals actually does help you achieve them. People who write down and describe their goals are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to accomplish them than people who don’t.
Writing down your goals can seem like extra work when you already have a clear view of them in your mind. How does writing it out help? When you write down your goals, you do it on two levels: external storage and encoding.
External storage is the act of storing the information about your goal in an external location — for example, in a spreadsheet. You can access it easily and review it when you please. You can print it out and hang it up on your refrigerator. You do not have to be a neuroscientist to understand that it’s much easier to remember something when it is in front of you every single day.
Encoding is a deeper phenomenon — a biological process. When you write things down, your brain (and more specifically, the hippocampus) analyzes this action. The brain decides what information is stored in the long-term memory, and what will be discarded. Writing in general improves this process. When you write down your goals, the chances are higher that you will remember them.
Neuropsychologists have defined a phenomenon called the “generation effect.” Studies have shown that individuals demonstrate a better memory from things they have created themselves over things they have read. When you write down your goals, you trigger this generation effect twice:
- The moment you come up with your personal goal and create a mental image of it in your head.
- The moment you write it down, reprocessing that image.
Multiple studies have shown that writing something down improves your chances of remembering it. A lot of studies were held among students taking notes in classes. And in a more recent study researchers looked at people conducting interviews with job applicants.
When the researched interviewers took notes during interviews, they were able to recall about 23% more of the information discussed, compared with subjects who did not take notes.
“Writing it down” improves recall of information that’s truly important, as demonstrated in a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1994 by Paul Foos. Everyone remembers teachers saying, “This will be on the test!”
The study found out that students who did not take notes remembered just as many unimportant facts (not on the test) as important facts (on the test). The students who took notes remembered more important facts and fewer unimportant facts. Writing things down helps you remember key points more effectively and activates your brain to focus on the important stuff.