An English teacher may have taught you that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Your science teacher probably should have taught you that the English teacher was wrong — or at least using a bit too much poetic license.
In truth, research shows that making concrete plans is among the best predictors of successfully achieving goals.
Tell a heart disease patient they need to lose weight, odds are they’ll fail. Give them a step-by-step exercise plan, and they’re much more likely to work out (one study showed 91% more likely). Tell students to eat more fruit, they probably won’t. Help them make a plan to buy the fruit, and put a piece in their bag every morning, and they probably will.
Scientists have a fancy name for these best-laid plans: Implementation intentions. The mechanics of how you’ll get to your goals matter. Promising the dentist that you’ll floss more often does little. Putting a roll of floss on the bathroom sink right next to your toothbrush, and vowing to grab the floss when you brush every night, works much better.
If you are looking for a way to stop talking about things and start accomplishing them, concrete planning can help. A group of Harvard and Wharton researchers recently called implementation intentions a “powerful behavioral lever” that’s often ignored.
Consider this example from the researchers’ paper, titled: “Making the Best Laid Plans Better: How Plan-Making Increases Follow-Through.” A Midwestern company wanted employees to get flu shots to reduce unexpected absences, and offered free on-site clinics. One group was sent information on when and where the clinics would be; a second group was given an additional prompt to write down the date and time they intended to get the shot. The small tweak increased uptake by about 10%.
“Plan-making is just one of many tools in behavioral scientists’ toolbox for facilitating behavior change, but we argue it is an often overlooked and cost effective one,” the authors write. “An extra benefit of plan-making prompts is that they can often be added to existing messaging aimed at changing behavior at zero marginal cost.”
Implementation intentions, sometimes called trigger-action plans, work for a lot of reasons. In the floss example above, mental triggers can aid in behavioral change. On a basic level, “moment-behavior pairs” create simple prompts to follow through on a desired action.
There are other forces at play, too. Some researchers talk about the power of “pre-decisions.” The best way to avoid eating cookies at night is to avoid buying them at the store during the day. A more serious example: If you want to drink less, order a soft drink immediately upon arriving at a friend’s party. Many goal setters find the “if-then” nature of such rules are easy to follow. In this way, implementation intentions can be a big aid in resisting temptation.
For trigger action plans to work, they have to be clear, consistent, and achievable, like this: “At 2 p.m., I’ll walk to the fruit stand instead of the vending machine every day.” Note: that only works if there’s a fruit stand within walking distance.
Organizations can use the power of concrete planning with larger goals, too. “Increasing sales” or “lowering costs” are noble, but vague, goals. Calling one new potential client from a predetermined list of leads every Monday at 10 a.m. is better. Concrete planning requires far more than token annual review entries under the heading, “Name three goals you hope to achieve during the next year.” The goal instructions have to be highly detailed and quite pragmatic. “Learn a new programming language,” might sound specific; it’s not. “Take two hours every Friday afternoon to complete online coursework” is much better. Better still: “Warn co-workers that they can’t distract you with an out of office message,” a focus technique that’s called “goal shielding.”
The tricky thing for managers is that this kind of down-and-dirty, pragmatic planning can generate uncomfortable conversations about blocking issues.
Tell an employee to get a wellness medical exam, they’ll nod. Give them a half-day relief from work duties, and they’re more likely to follow through. But that conversation might also translate into a discussion about daycare, or finding a doctor, or overwork. Have the conversation anyway.
Some of this goal-setting strategy talk might sound familiar: When New Year’s resolutions arise, most people know that “losing weight” is a poorly-worded goal; “I’ll go to the gym every Tuesday and Thursday” is more likely to produce the desired result. Concrete goals work better, a phenomenon sometimes called the goal specificity effect.
Implementation intentions might have a bit more to do with the goal-proximity effect; the closer we are to a perceived finish line, the easier it is to keep going. Implementation intentions create a set of small, intermediate, achievable goals. Authors don’t write books. They write chapters, or even pages. A page a day is a book a year, the saying goes. (Editor’s note: The other saying goes “If you value your sanity and/or relationships, you will never, ever, EVER write a book.” This is called the Jeff Just Barely Held it Together Principle.)
Be warned: While concrete planning is an inexpensive tool, it’s not perfect, and it’s not for everyone. Some research has shown it can backfire among people with perfectionist tendencies. In a paper titled (in part) “Perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” researchers found that those with self-critical tendencies did significantly worse when faced with an intimidating step-by-step to-do list.
Other research has shown that, while concrete planning helps in isolation, the impact is muddied when subjects attempt to use the strategy on multiple goals simultaneously. In “Too Much of a Good Thing,” Amy Dalton and Stephan Spiller argue that detailed plans for multiple goals can be overwhelming, and “draws attention to the difficulty of executing multiple goals,” which can undermine the entire endeavor.
So if you are handing out concrete plans, don’t overdo it. Or rather, make a concrete plan to cap the number of goals and instructions you give employees, and stick to it.