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Think deeply about what you want to accomplish

Goal setting cohorts showed a 22% increase in academic performance

The weeks leading up to the new year involve a kind of déjà vu: The vague sense, as we brainstorm all the things we’d like to accomplish come January, that we’ve made these plans already.

New research suggests that just the act of setting goals can be valuable, if you do it right: According to a new study in the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology, taking the time to think deeply about what you want to accomplish — regardless of what that is — can have a positive ripple effect throughout your life.

Goal setting is a key element of self-regulation and behavior change. It has been shown to have unique effects on behavior in many domains including industry, education, sports, and health care (Epton et al., 2017, Locke and Latham, 2013). Especially promising is research on the effects of personal goals, or individuals’ desires for their current or future lives (Locke, 2019, Locke and Latham, 2019). These goals provide a sense of meaning and hence can contribute to the feeling of having a purpose in life (Emmons, 1999; for a review, see (Schippers & Ziegler, n.d.). Life goals in particular can provide centrality to a person’s identity and give direction to chosen daily activities.

In the study, student volunteers were asked to reflect on their ideal life, identify the goals that would help them attain it, and write out a detailed plan for how to achieve those goals, including how they would overcome any obstacles they expected to encounter.

When the study authors followed up a year later, the students who’d done the exercise showed 20 percent more academic improvement than a control group — regardless of whether the goals they’d set had anything to do with school. Those who wrote that they wanted to exercise more, for example, also got an academic boost.

The results suggest that thoughtfully setting a goal in one area, like health, can have a contagious positive impact in other areas of your life, such as school and work, says the study’s lead author, Michaéla Schippers, a professor of behavior and performance management at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.

It’s not yet clear what might cause this spillover, but Schippers suspects that this process of thorough, careful planning — especially if it’s done in writing — might lead to an increased ability to self-regulate. Discipline is discipline, according to this line of thinking, and once it’s cultivated, it doesn’t necessarily stay in its lane. You may be focused on resisting the temptations that pull you away from your gym routine, for example, but you’re still flexing the mental muscle that also keeps you from scrolling Twitter when you’ve got a deadline to hit. (Other research contradicts this idea somewhat — a psychology concept known as ego depletion holds that willpower is a finite resource — so Schippers stresses that the team’s hypothesis is still just that.)

It’s also worth noting that the more the students in the study wrote, and the more specific their plans were, the greater improvement they saw, a pattern that fits with past research suggesting that deep reflection is most effective when it’s bolstered by details. In another recent study, Schippers and her colleagues unveiled a concept called “life crafting,” which they described as “a combination of reflecting on one’s values, passions and goals, best possible self, [and] goal attainment plans.”

“Asking what would be your ideal life, if there are no constraints at all, is crucial,” she says. By figuring out who you want to be, you can more easily identify and commit to what you need to do. She credits life-crafting with pushing her toward a number of important goals, like becoming a professor; currently, she’s hoping to use it to push herself back into taekwondo, a sport where she was once close to winning a world championship.

Research Highlights:

A goal-setting intervention was used with two independent university student cohorts.

The goal setting cohorts showed a 22% increase in academic performance.

Amount and quality of effort enhanced the effect.

It did not matter whether the students wrote about academic or non-academic goals.

Results suggest a goal-setting theory modification: life goals have a spread effect.

About the author:

For my work as a coach, I draw on 30 years in business, working with large corporates and pure startups, in Australia and all over the world including Asia. I've created companies, helped startups grow and I've helped people make the crucial decisions about their career direction.

Greg Twemlow is also the founder and director of SEVENmile Venture Lab, a for-purpose enterprise supporting the entrepreneurial community on Sydney’s northern beaches.

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