A plan in the neck: Why having a plan can backfire

Having a goal and plan to get there is standard advice for those who want to achieve. As the saying goes, “Fail to plan, plan to fail”.

So we plan our year, our week and our day. But research has recently suggested that planning can undermine our ability to succeed. So when should we plan not to plan?

Life gets in the way

Most of us are familiar with the process of planning. You break down your goal (e.g. shed five kilos) into elements that impact the goal such as exercise and nutrition and set specific behaviours around them; run twice a week, reduce alcohol consumption, stop eating chocolate and so on. But despite the plan, you find yourself running only once every two weeks, binging on champers on the weekend and gorging yourself on Cadbury’s finest.

Our self-control is constantly tested and, being the brilliantly flawed people that we are, we rationalise these deviations from the plan by coming up with all sorts of excuses. Life just somehow seems to get in the way.

Self-control can be undermined by detailed planning

The relationship between planning and self-control caught the attention of researchers from Miami and California universities. Through a series of experiments it was found that when people who have a concrete plan find themselves a long way from achieving their goal (poor goal standing), their motivation actually declines. They get so emotionally distressed about their poor position that they throw in the towel. In pub language, “they get so bummed out they chuck it in.”

Importantly, it wasn’t just the distance from achieving the goal that caused distress; it was the concrete nature of the plan. Why? When you know you are a long way from your goal, it can be daunting to face the seemingly endless stream of mini goals you have to achieve.

Better to keep it loose?

In this regard, not having a plan or having one that was abstract rather than concrete was more helpful to people because they kept their focus on the ‘why’ of the goal rather than the ‘how’.

From this study there seem to be two parts to planning that we need to consider:

  • how far away from our goal we are, and
  • how detailed we should be in our planning.

If we find ourselves in poor standing relative to our goal (i.e., a long way from it), we may do better to keep focusing on the big picture “why” and be less prescriptive rather than more in how we plan to get there.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at www.peoplepatterns.com.au, viabri@peoplepatterns.com.au or by following on Twitter @peoplepatterns.




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