How to plan stuff (so you actually do it)

One of the best things about studying behavioural change is that it taught me how to influence my own behaviour as well. I’m not really susceptible to cheap tricks and such, mostly because I can recognise and arm myself against them, but some methods actually work. I started using one of those methods a while ago to plan things, and since then it has become a habit: I don’t really think about it anymore, I just do it. Today I’d like to talk about this strategy and why it works so well.

I’ll have to start off by explaining a little about what plans really are. It’s actually quite obvious: plans are the things we intend to do. But why do we intend to do things? Also an easy one – because we have certain goals. To illustrate the difference between intentions and goals: “I intend to lose weight, to reach my goal of weighing less than I do now.” We want something, so we (try to) direct ourselves towards attaining it. The problem is that just having the intention to lose weight doesn’t actually make us do it. This is why we create a so-called goal hierarchy. We turn the intention to lose weight into the goal, and create a lower-level intention: “I intend to do more physical exercise, to reach my goal of losing weight.” And again: “I intend to work out more often, to reach my goal of doing more physical exercise.” A lot of people will even go as far as: “I intend to work out on Monday, to start working towards my goal of working out more often.”

But that’s where it stops. We know what we want, we know what we need to do, but we still don’t do it. On Monday evening we sit on the couch, silently staring at some kind of screen, and feel bad because Monday just ‘happened’ without us doing what we intended to do. Perhaps we thought about doing it at some point, but found an excuse to do it ‘later’. This is where the strategy I was talking about comes in: it forces you to make a no-excuse plan. This plan, called an implementation-intention, basically follows the format “If situation X arises, I will do Y.” Like this, it doesn’t just show what you’re planning to do, but also exactly when and how you’re going to do it. This means that as soon as situation X comes up, you’ll be reminded of doing Y, which will help in actually doing it.

Key for these implementation-intentions is the specificity for both X and Y. Not ‘Monday’ and ‘work out’, but ‘when I get home from my meeting’ and ‘grab my things and go to the gym’. Of course, this kind of specificity needs a bit of effort. You can’t just plan to go to the gym after work every Monday, because something might come up and keep you from doing it. You won’t feel bad about not doing it, since it wasn’t your fault, but I guess the thing is that you kind of have to feel bad about it if you want your plan to work. If you don’t feel bad (enough) about it, you probably won’t next time either. By making the plan as specific as possible, you’ll be reminded of what you wanted to do, tricking yourself into feeling bad if you refrain from actually doing it. This gives you a little push in the right direction.

For me, this strategy has been a great find. As soon as I notice I’m postponing things, I decide to plan it as an implementation-intention instead. Right now I mostly use it to get myself to start writing application letters, since I want to do at least one a week. Just that plan is not enough, so I tell myself to do it ‘straight after I’ve had lunch today’, or something similar. A little side note: when I first started planning things like this I found that set times don’t really work for me, perhaps because they are too abstract. If I planned to do something at 9:00 and looked at the clock at 9:02, I could just postpone it until 10:00 (… 10:02 … 11:02). ‘Tomorrow morning’ is equally horrible. Something that does do the job for me is ‘after I watch an episode of this series’. Be kind to yourself.

Credits for the initial work on implementation-intentions go to prof. dr. Peter Gollwitzer.

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