We all have goals. Goals about our career, goals about our health, goals about our life. And yet, it seems we are always failing at our goals. But why?
One of the main reasons why people fail at their goals is that they don’t have a good goal plan. On Sunday night, they think, “Tomorrow I’m going to wake up early and finally start exercising.” They set their alarm for 5 a.m., but don’t plan any further than that. Come Monday morning, they roll over, hit the snooze button, and dredge through another week without a single change to their lives.
No shame here — we all do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can achieve your goals, whatever they are; you just need to know the right way to go about it.
As Denzel Washington pointed out in his 2015 commencement speech at Dillard University, to achieve your goals, you need discipline and consistency — but that’s easier said than done.
For this post, let’s just focus on the consistency part.
To be consistent, you need a good plan.
One that will ensure that no matter what your day is like, you will still get off your butt and work on your goal, no matter what.
Lucky for us, psychologists have figured out exactly how to develop such a plan. Even better, you can do it in under 60 seconds. Here’s how.
A good plan should specify five things:
1. When you are going to work on your goal
2. Where you are going to do it
3. How you are going do it
4. How long you will do it
5. Your backup plan, in case any of these components falls apart
For instance, if you are trying to lose weight, it’s not enough to just want to exercise more. It’s not even enough to set your alarm for 5 a.m. You need to develop a plan that states exactly:
1. When you are going to work out — “I will work out at 6 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
2. Where you are going to work out — “I will work out at the gym."
3. How you are going to work out — “I am going to spend half of my session on the treadmill and the other half on the weight machines.”
4. How long — “I will work out for 1 hour each session.”
5. Your backup plan, in case something interferes — “If I don’t have enough time for an hour session that day, I will skip the gym and instead take a 30-minute walk around my neighborhood.”
Psychologists call this type of goal plan an implementation intention.
Implementation intentions refer to an if-then statement that specifies the exact behavior you will perform in a particular situation. Implementation intentions are referred to as if-then statements, because they typically take the form of “If situation Y occurs, then I will engage in behavior X.” So if it is 6 a.m. on Monday morning, then I will go to the gym. And if my schedule gets too hectic, and I don’t have enough time for a full workout, then I will walk around my neighborhood for 30 minutes.
A number of research studies have shown how beneficial implementation intentions are.
For example, one study by Orbell and colleagues had women set the goal of conducting a monthly breast examination to check for potential tumors. For women who just intended to complete this goal, only 53 percent actually completed the exam during the next month. But when the women wrote down exactly when and where and how they would conduct the monthly exam, 100 percent completed the exam during the next month.
Other studies have found similar effects using different goals, such as taking vitamins, exercising, eating a low-fat diet, or recycling.
So why are these nifty little plans so effective?
One reason is that because of how specific they are, they are easy to follow. This ensures that your goal-directed behavior is the same every time. There’s that consistency Denzel was talking about.
A second reason is that because of their specificity, it is really easy to see when you’re falling behind. If your goal is just to “exercise more,” that goal is so abstract that it’s hard to tell when you’re succeeding at it, and when you’re failing.
But if your goal is to “work out at 6 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for an hour, splitting my session between the treadmill and weights,” then it is really easy to see when you are hitting your mark, and when you are falling short.
A third reason is that implementation intentions make our goal-behaviors automatic. Anyone who has tried to kick a bad habit knows that the beauty of habits is you don’t have to think about them or will yourself to do it. You just do it without even thinking about it.
For example, if every day at 4 p.m. you grab a Snickers bar out of the vending machine, chances are, when the time rolls around, you will find yourself mindless standing in front of the machine and wondering, “How did I get here?” That’s because over time, your repeated behavior caused your brain to create a connection between the behavior (eat a candy bar) and an environmental cue (4 p.m.).
Now here’s the cool thing — implementation intentions harness this automatic power for good. For example, if you form the implementation intention, “If I enter a building and see an elevator, then I will take the stairs instead,” you’ve linked the exercise goal (taking the stairs) with an environmental cue (seeing an elevator). Do this a few times, and you’ll find yourself automatically taking the stairs without having to think about it.
So, enough talking. Let’s start doing. Once you finish reading this post, take just one minute of your day, and write out your implementation intention on a piece of paper. Then post it near where you will see and where you already do a particular action every day. Then do that action right after an action you already do daily and repeat this every day. Make sure it's small and easy to do. Do this one simple step, and you may be surprised at the impact!