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Why Writing Trumps Positive Thinking Alone for Goal-Setting

4 well-designed writing prompts increase goal-setting's chances of success.

Nothing is Impossible.

Note: This article is Part I of IV of the Be Possible Writing Project Series.


You can craft vision boards, find a year-long intention word or three words or phrase, perform a New Year's Eve I Ching reading, plan and plan and plan, and tell yourself 108 times each morning for a month that you're a good person who deserves a fulfilling life.

And still, 12 months later, little beneficial change happens. Little gratification ensues. In fact, some of the above might be counter-productive.

Not even goal-setting alone seems to work for most solo-preneurs and business owners. The office supply chain Staples conducted its annual study of business owners and goal-completion in 2010 and discovered that around 80% of business owners hadn't looked at their annual goals just a few months after setting them.

So, what gives?

Is there a science or an art to manifesting our dreams and achieving our goals? Is there something beyond wishful thinking and empty truisms that will up the chances that our wondrous best self will flourish in 2012?

Yes. No. Sort of. Not exactly. Apparently. Possibly.

I'm suspicious of quick fixes. Bliss in a weekend. A successful book proposal or business plan in a month. 5 Steps to Anything. So, being the unabashed research geek that I am I've researched myself, my enterprises, our clients, and reams of social psychology and neuroscience.

I don't have the answer to manifesting your best possible self's vision and goals. But I do have tweaks to an intervention that's been proven to work on people's outlook, health, and disposition to problem-solve.


Setting and following through on goals is necessary for most creatives, but the activity rarely works if certain elements aren't in place.

We need vision.

Deep intention.

The right kinds of questions - pursuit of mastery questions especially.

And in addition to the know-how, you need the how - the strategies and persistent actions to make ideas happen.

Still, might there be a simple, pleasurable, even more wondrous intervention that includes much of the above?

It turns out there is. And I've modified it to make it even more so. This intervention can work for creatives as well as for creative team leaders who want their team members to flourish. The intervention is writing-based.


The originator of this intervention is Laura A. King, professor of research psychology and recipient of the University of Missouri-Columbia's Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity in 2004. King has an avid interest in how we derive meaning and cultivate happiness. She's also interested in how writing about life experiences correlates with meaning-making and happiness.

So, in 2001, while professor at Southern Methodist University, based on James Pennebaker's successful work with therapeutic writing, King performed a study on graduate students. One group wrote about a traumatic event for four consecutive days. The second group she asked to write about future life goals and their best possible self for four consecutive days. A third group wrote about an emotionally neutral topic for the same period.

Three weeks later, students in groups 1 and 2 reported a notably more optimistic attitude toward their futures according to their completion of a test that correlates with better problem-solving.

Five months later, students who wrote about and made meaning of a traumatic event and students who wrote about their best possible selves in the future visited the university's health center notably less than students who wrote about an emotionally neutral subject.

Mindset, strong health, and positive action instigated by writing help us manifest our vision, goals, and intentions.

I'll share with you in a moment King's writing prompt about your best possible self. But first a warning.

Vision boards can work. So can positive thinking. But wishful thinking of The Secret brand actually can be harmful to certain people.

For over thirty years, social psychologist Timothy Wilson has been studying what interventions really work to change people's behavior. His new book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change illuminates many short-comings of simplistic ideas suggested by well-intending self-help teachers (Wilson also is the one who directed me to King's work).

Wilson points to a 2009 study published in Psychological Science titled "Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others."

Here's Wilson on the difference between Stuart Smalley-like affirmations and the writing prompt:

"For people with a low opinion of themselves, saying 'I am a lovable person' reminds them of all the ways in which they are not lovable, pushing them further into the doldrums....

"The key difference [between affirmations and the writing prompt and other such interventions] is that simply thinking about how wonderful we are does not equip us with strategies to make ourselves so. ...Indeed, research shows that people who focus on the process of achieving a desired outcome are more likely to achieve it than those who simply think about the outcome itself." (68)

And writing takes this process even further. Writing into your future engages imagination, heart, and other faculties so that your unconscious more fully assimilates the process.


King published her findings in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here's a review of the guidelines as Wilson conveys it:

You are to find a quiet place and then for four consecutive nights follow these instructions (The end of the day, by the way, seems to be the more effective time for this exercise):

"Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined."


Today and during the next three days, I will offer you here at the Tracking Wonder blog a daily variation to this prompt that will help you envision and track your best possible self's narrative this year - not just the whats but the hows as well.

I've tweaked the prompt and divided it into four prompts, one for each of the four days. These prompts further engage your deep imagination, emotions, and intellect while also including some key ingredients to actually feeling gratified in pursuing goals.

It's a big year. I hope you'll let your wondrous best self show up for it. The first one follows.


Today's prompt revolves around Symphonic Activity. Symphonic Activity is an activity that brings together your mind, body, and aspirations like players in a symphony. The activity might challenge your wits in an optimal way, but all facets of your self move harmoniously. Examples include conducting your daily business and enterprise with elegance, giving a dynamic talk, orchestrating a party or social gathering, facilitating an event, writing a book or story, designing a project.

In short, in a symphonic activity, you really do feel like a creative maestro.

Here's the prompt:

"Find a quiet, private place. Then, follow these instructions for the first day:

Imagine your best possible self at the end of a specific day in late 2012. See yourself in a specific place where you can reflect upon the day and the year. A favorite chair, a deck or balcony, a mountainside?

What SYMPHONIC ACTIVITIES have you been engaged in this year that have brought out your wondrous best self, deep activities that your best self has aspired toward? How has your body felt while engaged in those activities?  How would you describe the rhythm of your body's movements?

How have specific parts of your mind - perception, imagination, emotion, intellect - been engaged? How has your mind felt during these past few months?

What if anything have you said during these activities? To whom? How would you describe the quality and tenor of your voice? The quality of your relationships with these individuals or groups? The quality of your relationship with your wondrous best self?"

Prompt 2 comes tomorrow.


All right, every day ain't going to be the best day of your life, don't worry about that. If you stick to it you hold the possibility open that you will have better days. - author & activist Wendell Berry

I'm genuinely curious how effective these prompts will be for you this year. I'm curious what will happen for each of us and what the match ups and discrepancies will be between our aspirations today and what manifests a year from now.

I'm also a nut for follow-up.

So, drop in here this week and join the conversation. Share parts or all of your responses to the prompts. Ask questions about the research. Or let us know what you're doing to "plant seeds" for your wondrous best self's aspirations to bloom this year.

I'll post the second prompt tomorrow.

Be possible. Act accordingly.

See you in the woods,


Jeffrey Davis is author of the book The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish 2008; Penguin 2004). He consults with and trains creatives, solo-preneurs, colleges, and small organizations internationally to shape each day with wonder and to sustain creative momentum.

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