After my sophomore year of college, I set a goal to graduate magna cum laude. I had done the math, and figured out that I could make it if I did everything right. To remind myself of that goal, I created a big sign saying “MAGNA CUM LAUDE” and hung it over my desk. When I was tempted to take a shortcut or not work as hard as I should, the sign reminded me of my goal.
I wish I could say that I achieved that goal, but an over-ambitious 21-credit-hour semester knocked me off track. I earned six A’s and one C+ that semester. Damned poetry class! I still remember the disheartening experience of calculating my maximum GPA after that semester and learning that magna cum laude was mathematically impossible, even if I earned A’s in my remaining classes. However, instead of giving up, I took the sign down and used a pair of scissors to create a sign that said “CUM LAUDE.”
* Magna cum laude was a GPA of 3.7-3.8. Cum laude was 3.6-3.7.
My daughter’s bulletin board, pictured above, reminded me of that sign and how visuals motivate the efforts necessary to achieve goals. Seeing our goals on paper flips a switch in our brains that paints a picture of the goal and a path to it. Through this mental exercise, we actually project ourselves to the place we want to be, and because we were there once in our minds, we know where we’re going. That’s why it’s easier to drive to familiar locations than it is to go some place new to us.
In an oft-cited study, Dr. Gail Matthews, a professor of psychology at Dominican University in California, found that goal-seekers are 42 percent more likely to achieve their goals when they write them down. You don’t have to create a sign, like my daughter and I did; you just need to put pen to paper.
Writing your goals makes them much more tangible than just thinking about them. While it’s still important to mentally visualize your goals; physically seeing them reinforces that visual. Goals kept in solitary mental confinement can get lost in everyday clutter, like worry and doubt. When goals are isolated in our thoughts, issues, both pressing and otherwise, can shove their way past the goal, until it is simply forgotten or conscientiously abandoned. That’s usually how many New Year’s resolutions die. We want to drop those extra 15 pounds, but paying the bills takes precedence over diet and exercise.
When a goal is in your head AND in front of your eyes, it’s much more difficult to neglect or ignore than when it’s kept secretly in your mind, but writing it down is just the first step. Place the written goal in a spot that can’t be ignored, like the corner of your computer monitor or on the mirror you stare into at the beginning and end of each day. The more times you see that goal, the stronger the image your mind creates around it.
You can also take it a step further by sharing your goals with other people, creating an accountability contingent that will ask you about your progress. Before long, you’ll become known as the guy who wants to run a marathon or the girl who wants to own a restaurant. It takes some guts to put yourself out there like that, but courage is an important part of successful goal pursuit, and it’s helpful to have others supporting you.
I did graduate cum laude, though it came down to the very end, and I barely made it. I was so close that I am convinced that, without that sign, as altered as it might have been, I wouldn’t have achieved my goal.
Try writing down a goal that is important to you. If it’s that important, it’s worth writing down. Even if you have to get out the scissors and modify it later, you’ll be closer than you would have been otherwise.