Here's why you need to write your fitness goals down
Research shows that if you write your goals down – and don't just think about them – you’re 30x more likely to achieve them
Some of us seem to go years with the same training goals and don’t see much progress. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to run a marathon, so you get out in your best trail running shoes regularly, but year after year goes by without actually getting a number. Or there’s a 5.9 rated climbing route at your local crag that you’ve always aspired to send, but you never seem to quite be ready. You could start to wonder if you’ll just never have the time, the fitness or the skill to reach your goal. But it’s also possible that the real reason comes down to a pen and a piece of paper – or lack thereof.
It’s well-known that setting goals is an effective way to further your training, but a Harvard Business study (opens in new tab) suggested that you are 30x more likely to succeed in your goals if you write them down (the same study, however, found that only 3% of their respondents had written down their goals). Of course, there’s no replacement for training, the right gear and adopting certain mental traits to further your performance, but when compared to the blood, sweat and tears that go into all that, taking a few minutes to write your goals down seems positively easy, especially if it turns out to be such a high-yield investment. Here we examine some research to discover why writing your goals down is so crucial for success, and offer a clinically-backed method for writing your goals down to make sure you realize them.
1. It commits them to memory
It’s easy to think that if something is important to you, you won’t forget it, but if you have a look back at an old list of New Year’s resolutions and you might be surprised to discover what 2019 you wanted out of life that you’d totally forgotten about. Of course, sometimes your goals change, so not reaching them might not actually be a problem, but it would be a shame to not reach a goal simply because you forgot about it. Anyway, how can you expect to achieve a goal if you don’t keep it in mind?
Harvard Business’s research shows that writing things down helps commit them to memory, called the “generation effect” by neuropsychologists. So when you’re setting a goal, it really does help you to grab a pen and paper and articulate it. You can even stick that paper somewhere that you’ll see it regularly, such as on the fridge or bathroom mirror.
2. It helps you to focus and prioritize
Chances are, you’ve got lots of goals. Performance-related goals and health goals and relationship goals and professional goals. Then you’ve got other commitments and obligations taking up space in your head, too. It’s a busy world and that makes it hard to know what to focus on. Some of your goals may be extremely important to you (running a sub 3-hour marathon) while others may be things you daydream about but consider less important (read more books).
In an article for Forbes (opens in new tab), Mark Murphy, the founder of LeadershipIQ.com, explains that writing your goals down essentially helps your mind operate more efficiently by focusing on the most important things – so for you that could be focusing on your pace, distance or even breathing, rather than just hitting the trail and seeing what happens.
3. It makes you clarify your goals
Often we have general goals such as “I want to run more” or “I want to be a better climber” but the less specific you are about your goals, the harder it is to achieve them. Murphy’s research also shows that writing your goals down makes you essentially visit them twice – first when you think of them, and again when you read them. Reading them quickly shows you how specific (or not) they are, and gives you an opportunity to make them more defined, as in “I want to run 5km three times a week” or “I want to be able to send Sasquatch in Little Cottonwood Canyon.”
4. It motivates you
Writing down your goals and re-visiting them often doesn’t just keep them in the forefront of your mind, it might actually inspire you into action. A 2018 study published in Sports Psychologist (opens in new tab) of 62 college students found that the more participants looked at their goal, the more likely they were to practice their skills – though this particular study didn’t necessarily find an improvement in performance in this clinical setting, as an athlete yourself, you’re probably aware that regular practice is key. Seeing your goals stuck to the fridge each morning can actually motivate you to go for that run, hit the gym or work on that bouldering problem. It also helps you measure your progress, which can be really motivating.
5. It improves your chances of success
The last study might not have found a direct correlation between writing goals down and performance, but there are certainly studies out there that have come to that exact conclusion. Take a 2021 study (opens in new tab) by psychology professor Dr Gail Matthews, for example. She recruited her participants from various businesses, organizations, and groups throughout the world for a study on how goal achievement in the workplace is affected by writing goals down. Her study showed that not only did writing goals down greatly improve your chances of success, but taking it a step or two further and rating your goals in terms of difficulty and importance, writing action commitments and communicating your goals to a friend improves your chances of success by a whopping 76 per cent. Plus, when your goals are written down, you can cross them off your list, and we all know how satisfying that is!
How to write your goals down for success
There are lots of really great approaches to goal-writing, such as the well-known SMART method (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) and finding the right approach might involve trying a few different techniques. If you’re impressed by the results of Dr Matthews study, here’s the exercise she gave her most successful participants.
- Write down your training/performance goals.
- Rate each goal in terms of its difficulty, importance and resources available to you in order to achieve it.
- Write action commitments for each goal – what will you do each week in order to achieve it?
- Send a weekly progress report to a friend.
- The best trail running shoes: footwear for traction on tough terrain
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.