Having a plan might mean planning to fail

By SmartCompany

July 11, 2016

Plan B circled in red pencil – planning concept

One of the big assumptions we make when trying to change behaviour is that a plan will help. In other words, if we map out the specifics of how to achieve our goal we will be more likely to achieve it. We do this in the workplace by getting staff to complete performance plans, and we do it in our personal life.

But what if “failing to plan is planning to fail” is wrong? What if planning is actually undermining our chances of success?

Goal difficulty affects planning efficacy

Researchers from the University of Delaware were interested in the relationship between planning, the degree of difficulty of the behavioural goal and our motivation to undertake the goal.

Using weight loss and saving money as typical goals, they hypothesised that:

  • Planning for a moderately difficult goal (eg. reducing daily calories by 700 or saving $150/month) should make that goal seem more effortful and therefore more valuable, increasing the motivation to undertake it; and
  • Planning for an easy goal (eg. reducing calories by 300 each day or saving $75/month) should make that goal seem less effortful and therefore less valuable, reducing motivation.

In one of the three experiments they conducted, 219 participants for whom weight loss was a goal were split across two conditions. The first group were asked to write a plan for how they would cut calories, including what changes they would make, where and when. Let’s call them the “planners”.

The second group, the “non-planners”, spent the equivalent amount of time writing about what they did they day prior, with no direction to focus on diet.

After both groups completed some further demographic questions and an unrelated computer task (to throw them off the scent), they were told to exit the room and take their paperwork to a research assistant in the hall.

Each participant was thanked by the assistant as they handed in their paperwork. The assistant also told them that there were some chocolates left over from a Halloween function and invited them to take as many fun-sized Milky Ways and Snickers bars as they wanted.

By way of side-glance, the assistant (who was deliberately left unaware of the hypotheses) recorded how many chocolates each participant took.

Planning can backfire for easy goals

According to this research, planning can backfire for easy goals. Here’s what they found:

  • When the goal was easy (eg. 300 calories), planners took more chocolates than non-planners — planning backfired because it decreased motivation to take action
  • When the goal was difficult (eg. 700 calories), planners took fewer chocolates than non-planners — planning worked by increasing motivation to act

The researchers concluded that the “effect of planning on motivation depends on goal achievement difficulty”. By way of explanation, they suggest that this supports ‘energisation theory’, where “goals are more motivating as they become more difficult but demotivating when they become extremely difficult”. Imagine an inverted U where at the extremes of ease and difficulty, people can’t be bothered to act, but a little bit of difficulty makes acting worthwhile.

A time and place for planning

In short, we need to reconsider the assumption that plans are always beneficial. Here’s how you might like to think about the time and place for planning.

Difficult goals

Planning helps by forcing us to get specific, which not only clarifies what we need to do but also increases our perception of effort required. This in turn increases our motivation to undertake the goal because we equate effort with value.

Easy goals

Developing a plan for something that is perceived as easy can erode any motivation to bother. In a sense, we equate the lack of required effort with a lack of importance.

The problem, of course, is that there is no standard definition for easy and difficult so it can be a challenge to know when planning is best used. As the researchers note, what’s easy to one person may be difficult for another; the terms are relative and depend on the context and person. For someone who has a high income, saving $150 might be easy but the same is not true for someone on a lower wage.

My advice is therefore not to default to planning, but rather use it was a technique to unblock inertia. If there’s something you want to do but have been procrastinating, that’s your cue that a plan might help.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

This article was first published by The Mandarin’s sister publication SmartCompany.

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