Personal Goals Can Be a Shortcut to Professional Success

New research makes the case for a spillover effect

Emily Underwood
Forge
Published in
4 min readDec 31, 2019

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Photo: Morsa Images/Getty Images

TThe 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.

“Haven’t I been here before?” I wondered last night, as I downloaded a half-dozen apps that will supposedly help me practice guitar, drink eight glasses of water each day, and learn to do the splits.

Honestly, I’m not even sure. I can’t really remember the things I vowed to do this time last year. But 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.

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…

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Emily Underwood
Forge
Writer for

Freelance writer and contributing correspondent at Science magazine. Website: https://emily-underwood.com/