why you need to write your goals down

This post originally appeared at Millionaire Mommy Next Door.  If you haven’t visited her blog yet, you really should.  She’s someone who “made it” – she’s achieved financial freedom and she’s willing to share the who-what- when-where-why-how’s.   I love her blog, and you will too.

A while ago I had an epiphany.  We were visiting my brother and his family, who live in a house with a fenced-in backyard and a pleasant detached home – quite different from our townhouse. I told Bubelah that this would be a great way to live: to have a fenced-in backyard where toddlers could play without us having to worry about them dashing out in the street. I declared that this should be one of our goals: to move out of our townhouse in the next few years and find a house with a yard that we could fix up into a children’s paradise. We would live simply, quietly in the country. This seemed to me to be a fine goal, and she agreed.

Fast forward a few days. I was again talking to my wife about the times we spent on the town in Manhattan while dating years ago. I lived in the heart of Manhattan, right off Central Park near Columbus Circle. She was living in Queens. While we were dating (and then afterwards while engaged) we spent a lot of time exploring Manhattan: a different ethnic restaurant every night, zipping to a bar or a lounge on weekends, hanging out with friends, taking in the sights and so on.  I was completely comfortable with a dirty martini in hand, dressed head-to-toe in black.  We stayed out late, listened to thumpin’ club music and generally lived the lifestyle of the young and unconcerned in the Greatest City on Earth.  We really enjoyed that lifestyle, too.

I told my wife that my goal was to somehow manage to move our family (the two of us plus our son and daughter) back to Manhattan and enjoy all of the culture that living in the heart of New York could offer. We would be a new urban family, enjoying a small apartment in a high-rise centrally located in Manhattan. Central Park for picnics with our kids, Broadway plays for us while the nanny watched the tykes at night. The luxurious lifestyle of the carelessly wealthy in New York. A dream, but why not? It’s a goal, and a good one.

At this point my wife turned to me and said, “Just a few days ago you were saying your goal was to live in the country with a yard! Now you want to live in Manhattan! Which is it?” Sheepishly I had to agree that it really depended on when you spoke to me. The theme song from “Green Acres” rattled around in my head.

Because of my inconsistency, and because of reading blogs like Millionaire Mommy Next Door, I now understand that I need to write down goals. I am good at keeping a to-do list and living within my means. My wife is a stay-at-home mother, and we spend less than we earn (although I’m always trying to earn more than I spend).  At the same time we’re still putting away plenty of money towards retirement and eating a fairly expensive organic and natural diet. The problem is that often I have a feeling that while we’re comfortable where we are now, I am not moving quickly enough to being free financially. While we are saving and carefully keeping emergency funds, I am certainly not in the position to consider quitting my consulting work now, or any time in the next 20 years at this rate. So how would writing down my goals help?

Writing things down inevitably makes them more concrete in your mind. Try keeping a notebook in your pocket 24 hours a day. Any time you have a thought – a to-do item, grocery shopping items, even if you hear a song you want to look up on the internet later on – write it down. You’ll find that this makes your memory stronger, not weaker. Review your list frequently. That will reinforce your memory even more. So if this works for “remember to buy eggs” why wouldn’t it work for “make every action aim towards financial freedom, living in a beautiful home in the country where I can pursue my writing?”  Every time I flip open my Moleskine I’m confronted by my ten-year goals.  And yes, I’m confronted – that’s the right word, meaning that they get up in my face and challenge me.

As you can see from my example, I can’t even remember my goals from one day to the next. I have realized from this little mistake, and a dozen others, that my confident claim “I don’t need to write goals down” is not confident, but silly. Writing goals down is a critical first step, not a pointless exercise. I have been dismissive of it because it seemed just a little too easy to be necessary. I liken it to skipping the instructions on a bottle of shampoo. We laugh at “rinse, lather, repeat” because we’ve seen that, done that. But for someone who’s never seen shampoo before, those would be helpful instructions.  Writing things down almost always serves a purpose.

So if you haven’t clearly defined your goals, written them down and begun a habit of reviewing them daily, you won’t have the reinforcement that you need to make them a reality. Dreams are fun and enjoyable, but putting your dreams onto paper (or into a Google Doc or a treasure map or whatever method works for you) is the real first step towards creating a real, workable path to achieve your goals.

11 comments

  • There is a second piece to this, which you mention but I think needs highlghting: periodically reviewing goals. Because I write mine down (on my blog even), and then promptly ignored them. 🙂

  • Umm…you nailed me. I need to write mine down as well. I have always reached the goals I write down, but have lately fallen off the wagon of actually writing them down.

    What is it about the human psyche that makes writing goals work?

    When I first started my current job, I wrote down the goal of “Being the #1 district manager as measured by ROI by year end.” I was the rookie, but I blew everyone else away. I got over-confident (or over-silly!) and didnt’ write it down for two years. Then, for some reason, I wrote the same goal down again and BAM, became the #1 district manager again! You’d think I’d learn!

    • @Ron: I know there are always studies floating around about why writing things down works, but it’s one of those things like gravity, I think. I don’t need to understand WHY it works, just that it DOES work. 🙂

      @MTP: Hey, I was thinking about Portugal today, so maybe so!

      @deepali: Absolutely. I do keep my goals in my face all the time – they are written on the inside front cover of my “capture” notebook so I get reminded every time I open my notebook to write “buy eggs.” Great point.

  • Great post Steve! We seem to be on the same wave length today, I posted on the same theme about my obsession with my goals.:)

  • With so much to think about and remember during the day your are absolutely right about writing down goals. That’s a good reason to love blogging. If you put a goal out there you can be held accountable. I just got a PDA and I’ve been using the memo’s and task lists lately to keep track of stuff like reading lists. I may have to add in bigger life goals too!

    • @FFB: One of the things that kills me is how much we are expected to take in and remember. I have slipped back into the bad habit of reading presidential political news, for example, and the news and facts and numbers there clutter up my brain and force out “useful” information. I carry my Moleskine around all day and write almost everything I NEED to remember down – or else I’d forget it and remember that Candidate X was in Candyland, New Jersey for a campaign fundraiser. Sports do the same thing, but football season’s over…

  • My only goal for the last 20 years was nailed by a line from a Moody Blues song: “Nothing more than survival.” And it’s worked. Anything beyond that is gravy. Makes it easy to remember, too.

    • @Curmudgeon: In a sense the continuation of the self would be the highest goal. I would like to visit the Forbidden City at some point, too, but yeah, survival is not a bad primary goal 🙂

  • I usually keep my goals in my head. I discuss them with important people in my life on a daily/weekly basis.. But for some reason i have had a tough time writing goals down..

  • Writing down goals on your blog is a good way to make them official and to receive some feedback. 🙂

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