Monday, September 23, 2013

The downside of planning

For most of us, life is just too busy.  It is hard to do everything you want and need to do in a day.  If you’re lucky, then your failures are not that systematic.  One day, you get to the gym, but don’t get to relax with a book.  Another day, you get the shopping done, but don’t clean up the kitchen.  Those kinds of goal failures are fine.  They just reflect that you have to make choices about what you are going to accomplish.

The real problem comes when your goal failures are systematic.  If you consistently fail to go to the gym, then you don’t accomplish the long-term goal of staying in shape. 

Because everyone has some set of goals that they find difficult to achieve, there has been a lot of research focusing on how to get better at accomplishing the most difficult goals.  One of the most effective techniques for helping you to achieve your goals is the implementation intention, which emerged out of research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues. 

An implementation intention is a specific plan to achieve a goal.  The idea is that many of your goals are defined too abstractly to be able to carry them out.  “Going to the gym,” for example, is a very general statement.  When you create an implementation intention, though, you create specific steps to achieve the goal and to avoid obstacles.  You might say that you are going to go to the gym on Tuesdays and Fridays at 4pm.  You think through specific obstacles like what you will do if a meeting comes up during your gym time or if you are just feeling too tired to go.  These implementation intentions are effective, because they help you to recognize when and where you will take actions that allow you to succeed.

An interesting paper from 2012 by Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that there are limits to the effectiveness of implementation intentions.  In particular, implementation intentions get less effective as the number of goals you are trying to achieve goes up.

In one study, the authors asked people to commit to either one new goal (like reading a book for pleasure, calling a friend, or eating a healthy meal each day) or six new goals.  They either committed themselves to the goal, or they formed a specific implementation intention.  Then, for five days, the researchers asked people which goals they fulfilled.  They also asked people for their commitment to the goals. At the end, they asked people how difficult they thought it was to achieve these goals.

When people were focused on one goal, the implementation intention helped people to achieve their goal.  They were much more likely to pursue the goal when they formed an implementation intention than when they just committed to the goal.  When they were focused on six goals, though, they actually were slightly less likely to achieve their goals when they formed an implementation intention than when they did not. 

This finding reflected that when there was only one goal, people were more committed to that goal and thought it would be less difficult to achieve the goal when they formed an implementation intention than when they did not.  When there were six goals, though, the implementation intention made people feel that satisfying the goals would be difficult to achieve, and so the plans actually decreased people’s commitment to the goals. 

The main message of this work is that you have to be careful not to overwhelm yourself with the details when working toward a difficult goal.  Implementation intentions have both a positive and a negative part.  On the positive side, they help you to figure out exactly how to add goal-related activities to your life.  On the negative side, they can also make it clear how difficult it is to achieve the goal. 

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the details, then try to scale back your expectations.  Even small steps toward a goal are better than no steps at all.  For example, if you cannot get to the gym every day, try to get there at least once a week.  After you add these new behaviors to your routines, you may find ways to increase your commitment to that goal later.