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If you’ve read some books on goal setting, you’ve probably read that only 3% of the population have written goals.

That statistic is often followed by something like “it doesn’t matter if this is true or not, the point is very few people write down their goals.”  There is a need for that justification.

This “3%” comes from a study at Yale University in 1953.

The story goes, a Yale University class set goals.  3% of the class wrote them down, while the other 97% didn’t.  Twenty  years later, the researchers checked in on the classmates to find that the 3% with written goals had more wealth than the other 97% combined.

What an interesting study…the only issue is that it never actually happened.

The 1953 Yale University Study

This study, or the idea of it, dates back more than 50 years.  From Jay Riffenbary to Tony Robbins to Zig Ziglar to Brian Tracy, references to this study have been published in books time and time again.

The media company, Fast Company, got curious to find this 1953 study, so they began doing some research.

After no luck finding the study’s source from the authors mentioned above, they went straight to one of the Yale graduates, Silas Spengler, a retired lawyer from the class of 1953.  Here’s what he had to say:

According to Spengler — who listed his future occupation in the Yale yearbook as “personnel administration following a course of business administration at Harvard,” and who instead went into the navy and then to law school — he never wrote down any personal goals, nor did he and his classmates ever participate in a research study on personal goals.

Of course, this doesn’t diminish the value of written goals.  You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?

I also don’t think it challenges the validity of the authors above.  After all, this has been quoted for so long in success seminars and personal development lectures that it’s become common knowledge.

The only problem I have with this study is that, if it were true, it would lead you to believe that there is a big difference between two individuals that write and don’t write down their goals.  But that’s not the end of it.  Not even close.  If you and I both set the same five goals, yet I write them down one time on a spare piece of paper, and you don’t write them down at all, I would venture to say that I may have a 1% better chance of reaching my goals.

Possibly less than 1%.  Why?  Because writing your goals on paper is not magic.

The Right Way to Write Goals

I don’t have a problem with someone quoting the 3% study to explain the power of written goals, because written goals are important.  What I do have a problem with is when people tell you to write your goals, but they give no guidance or direction whatsoever on how to actually do it.

From what I have found, written goals are much more powerful than goals not written.

Here’s some key steps I’ve found that actually make a difference in your ability to achieve your goals:

  • Write your goals down, literally.  I’m not sure why, but written goals stick better than typed goals.
  • Write your goals down, daily.  This is the most important point.  Write them and see them each day.
  • Write your goals down, actionably.  Your goals must be things you can actually do.  Write actions.
  • Write your goals down, slowly.  Visualize them as you write.  You’re not writing sentences in detention.
  • Write your goals down, accurately.  Change them as necessary and write down the accurate actions.

I don’t think there needs to be a study to back that up.  How could you not have a better chance of achieving your goals if you follow a pattern of writing and reviewing them daily?

In other words, written goals don’t make much of a difference, active goals do.

But just to reinforce the power of written goals, there actually is a study…that really happened…

A Study That Actually Happened

Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, actually conducted a study on setting and writing goals.  There were 267 participants and she found that the people with written goals were 42% more likely to achieve them.

Dr. Matthews actually had five different groups and the full results were interesting.  The group that just wrote their goals down didn’t have the highest success rate.  Here were the groups:

  • Participants in Group 1 were simply asked to think about their goals (what they wanted to accomplish over the next 4 weeks) and then asked to rate that goal on the following dimensions: Difficulty, Importance, the extent to which they had the Skills & Resources to accomplish the goal, their Commitment and Motivation to the goal, whether or not they had Pursued this goal before and if so their Prior Success.
  • Participants in Groups 2-5 were asked to write (type into the online survey) their goals and then to rate their goals on the same dimensions.
  • Group 3 was also asked to formulate action commitments.
  • Group 4 was asked to formulate action commitments and send their goals and action commitments to a supportive friend.
  • Group 5 was asked to formulate action commitments and send their goals, action commitments and weekly progress reports to a supportive friend. Participants in this group were also sent weekly reminders to email quick progress reports to their friend.

Here were the results:


The graph shows that the more active you are in setting and keeping your goals, the higher your chances of success, which means written goals are more powerful than thought-about goals, but it’s not just about writing them down.

You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re suddenly going to achieve a goal because you write it on a piece of paper, and then walk away and forget about it.

For more on Dr. Matthews’s research, you can download the full study here.

Do you have written goals?  What steps do you take in goal setting?