Why writing things down can help you achieve your goals

9 minute read

A page in a written journal
cameraPhoto by Estée Janssens on Unsplash


As a start-up entrepreneur you will feel like you are one of those circus performers who has to keep plates spinning on wobbly poles without letting any of them drop and smash on the floor. In your case, however, there will be about 100 plates and it will also feel like they’re dropping all over the place!

Getting into the habit of writing things down can help. Whether it’s setting priorities, tracking progress, running workshops or recording activities, if it isn’t written down it may as well not have happened.

Here are some examples to help convince you of the value of writing things down.

Can we speed this up? I’m in a hurry to succeed

My first example is about the power of writing, reporting and being accountable for our goals.

In 2015, Dr Gail Matthews of Dominican University in California conducted a study. The aim of this study was to identify successful strategies for achieving goals.

Dr Matthews invited 267 people to the study - men and women from all over the world, from different walks of life and backgrounds including entrepreneurs, lawyers, educators, artists and healthcare professionals. She wanted to understand how goal achievement in the workplace is influenced by the writing down of goals.

She divided the participants into two groups. The first group consisted of those who wrote down their goals and dreams while the second group consisted of those who did not. She discovered that those who wrote down their goals and dreams on a regular basis achieved those desires at a significantly higher level than those who did not.

In her study, she found that her participants were 42% more likely to achieve their goals and dreams simply by writing them down on a regular basis. In addition to this, more than 70% of the participants who published their goals and sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement, compared to 35% of those who kept their goals to themselves without writing them down.

This isn’t magic, it’s neuro-biology. Your brain consists of two hemispheres, the left and the right. These hemispheres are responsible for different activities. The left hemisphere is ‘literal’ and is responsible for motor activities like writing, amongst other things. The right hemisphere is ‘imaginative’ and is responsible for things like creativity and intuition.

The signals generated by the left and right hemispheres travel through the spinal cord to every cell, fiber and bone in our body. The significance of this is that if we just think about our goals and desires we are only using the right half of our brain. But if we think about something and then write it down we are engaging the logical, analytical, literal left half of our brain as well - the problem-solving part.

This is a clear example of the power of writing down goals, publicly committing to those goals and being accountable for their achievement.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well

The faintest ink is more powerful than the sharpest memory

Chinese proverb (allegedly!)

My second example is about workshops.

Running Value Proposition (VP) sessions is hard.

It can be testing and tedious. If a VP is to be of maximum value you have to force yourself to think about your customer in as much detail as you possibly can. It’s boring spending all this time thinking about something you want to change or eliminate. It can be uncomfortable for those who realise that they don’t understand their customer as well as they thought they did.

You may end up writing down a lot of things that seem so obvious that they appear to be of little value. Sure, you know it’s best practice but you’ve given it a go. Can’t you just get on with building your solution and not have to mess around with all this stuff any more?

As a consequence, you end up skipping steps and rushing to create your Value Proposition Statements as quickly as possible in order to justify how you got to where you are and where you want to go from here. You write down some assumptions because you know you need to but you can’t possibly test any of this stuff! Surely the only way to know for sure is to do it and see what happens?

So, why should you bother slowing down and doing it properly when you can run through the process in your head?

It’s worth recording your Value Proposition sessions for the following reasons:

  • Once it’s on paper you don’t have to keep it in your head - As an entrepreneur you have so many things to attend to that the less you have to keep track of mentally the better. Writing down your VP sessions removes the need to continually review and remember the details leaving more mental space for all the other important things you have to think about.
  • You can share it - Repeating yourself can quickly become tedious. Every time you meet a potential new partner/investor/employee you are going to have to tell your story over again. If you have an annotated picture to help you can be sure that you’re covering all the relevant points and telling a consistent story every time you do it.
  • It’s less stressful once it’s done - With so many things to do (see the first point above) it’s quite easy to achieve a critical insight one day and not be able to recall it the next day. If you’ve written it down you can share it with yourself at any point in the future (see the second point above). Speaking personally, that makes me feel a lot less stressed!
  • You may be surprised how much you overlook - One of the strengths of having an independent facilitator running your VP sessions is that she doesn’t have the same implicit knowledge you have about the problem you are trying to solve. This makes it far more likely that she will ask the obvious, awkward, critical question that you didn’t think to ask yourself because it didn’t seem relevant.
  • It makes it easier to justify your position - If you don’t catalogue the steps you’ve taken it can be difficult to remember how or why you reached a particular outcome. Going through the process again wastes time and you still may not remember how you made your decisions. Avoid forgetting crucial steps in your thought process by writing them down.
  • Describe what you don’t solve as well as what you do - This makes your offering clearer to yourself and to customers, making it far less likely that customers will become unhappy because of false expectations. It also gives you options for pivoting if necessary and for future expansion.
  • Challenge your thinking - Being forced to think about your problem in a different way can result in unexpected insights.
  • It makes it harder to write VP statements - Making something harder may not seem like a step forward, but the temptation when preparing VP statements is to be way too verbose. Choosing one post-it from your VP canvas for each part of the statement forces you to prioritise. I often find that founders want to say something that isn’t in the VP canvas, which begs the question “why didn’t you mention this when creating the VP canvas?”.

I demand to see the Manager!

My final example is about finding out who you need to hire.

It is usually the case that start-ups have a small number of founders, often only 1 or 2. This means that these individuals are responsible for everything that happens in the start-up, from strategic thinking to paying bills. With so few people and so much to do it is critical that you communicate and decide who is going to do what to avoid doing things twice or failing to do them at all.

I am often asked by start-ups to help them find Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and my first question is ‘What type of CTO do you want?’. This usually results in a rather confused expression and a response to the effect of ‘I want the CTO type!’. My point is that the title CTO is just that - a title. There is no rule as to what a CTO does or does not do. It’s your company, so it’s up to you. Do you want a CTO who simply runs everything to do with development, or do you want a CTO who is heavily involved in strategic thinking and/or sales?

The same question is true of any employee. Are you absolutely clear about what you want that employee to do? If you aren’t clear, how can they be clear? And if they aren’t clear, how can they be effective?

There is a technique for handling questions like these so that you have the answer ready when you need it. This technique involves… you guessed it… writing stuff down. The first thing you need to do is take a blank sheet of paper and write down all the job titles that you may need filled (i.e. all the employees you need to engage).

The next stage involves writing down all the things you do, be it conducting customer research, accumulating financial data for a business loan or putting together share agreements. Take this list of jobs you are doing and allocate them to the most appropriate job title you created in the first list.

Finally, think about the things you are not doing yet but which you will need to do in the future and allocate these among your defined job titles. You should now have a list of jobs and their associated responsibilities. You can rationalise this list and re-arrange it to suit. The point is, you now know who is responsible for what.

In the period before their first hire the founders are going to be responsible for all of these jobs between them. Look at your list and allocate yourselves the job titles you are most interested in/capable at. Now you have a clear division of labour.

For everything you do, ask yourself which of your assigned roles you are adopting to achieve that task. Add what you learn to that job description.

Now you are ready to hire because you know exactly what to look for in your target candidate.

The take-away

I could go on (and on!). I hope that, whether it’s defining the subject of your hypotheses and deciding what success looks like before you run an experiment, or writing a specification for your MVP so that you stop prevaricating and actually produce something, it’s clear that writing things down is of immense value.

Apart from anything else, if you don’t write it down you’re not inviting the logical, problem-solving part of your brain to the party. And that would be a shame when innovation is all about solving problems.

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