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How To Encourage Mentees To Write Down Goals

By Ken Ehling

Most people are not fans of formal goal setting and will avoid the task of writing down goals. Instead, they prefer to talk about them and to generalize. Here are a few of the common reasons for this behavior,

  • If it’s not written down, one is not accountable for failure. The emotion behind this can be a lack of confidence in developing a goal plan or a general fear of failing to achieve the goal.

  • Or, one might be inclined to procrastinate and put life on “cruise.” By resisting writing down goals, one is choosing to let tomorrow take care of itself, and also lowering the chances of success.

A good place to start is with the goal of “successfully completing supervised release” (this is a high-level goal). Have your mentees list the things they must do to make that happen. This will include things such as passing drug tests, attending treatment classes, getting a job, finding housing, writing a budget, etc. Select a couple of these key tasks for starters (these are sub-level goals). Next, ask them to write down the steps that define how they will accomplish these tasks (these are goal action steps) and the timing (these are the deadlines). This is a basic approach to helping mentees get started writing a goal plan.

  • High-level goal. (Aspiration)

  • Sub-level goal. (What is needed)

  • Action Steps. (How to accomplish)

  • Deadlines. (When to complete)

As the individual advances, other high-level goals can be added, such as defining the most important “things they want in life” and all that is required to get there.

High-level goals are generally long term objectives. Sub-level goals and their related action steps are the real nuts and bolts of goal work and tend to have shorter deadlines.

Here are a few points to emphasize why it’s important to write goals down.


  • In psychology, the first stage in memory is called encoding. Information messages are sent to the area of our brain where decisions are made to either store the information for long-term memory or to discard it. Things we write down are more likely to be retained in memory than are other information inputs.


  • When we generate the information ourselves (write it down) there is an additional effect that increases the probability of retention by the brain and the likelihood of implementation. If we also create a mental image of the information or add a graphic sketch or a doodle to our written word, it imprints the information even more deeply into memory.


  • Documented goals clarify our plan and improve our vision for the way ahead. When we have good direction we have more power.


  • A goal plan is a continuum where falling short is not a defeat, only a delay. Learning from our mistakes is the natural process we all take to success.


  • Written goals and action steps are visual cues to remind us and keep us on the right path. It’s important to post your goal plan where it will be visible daily.


  • Written goals and action steps are reference points that help us gauge our progress. Assign measurements to your goal process (% or numbers) .When we review our work and see that we are advancing, our motivation increases. If we see that we are behind schedule, it prods us to catch up.


  • Documenting due dates for goals creates the urgency to counter the weakness of procrastination that confronts most everyone. It keeps the momentum rolling.

(Ken Ehling has been mentoring high risk probationers in the Minnesota federal reentry court for the past 4 years)

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