Written By: Elissa Wurf

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

We wrote in a previous post about the characteristics of a good goal and the benefits of setting goals that put you on track to achieve them.  In this post, we’ll move down that track and discuss some tactics that help you accomplish your goals.

As the SMART goals framework suggests, good goals have within them the seeds of a plan—they are specific, time-bound, and measureable.  There are several strategies one can consider when formalizing that plan.

The first is partializing, which breaks goals into easy “next action” steps, making them easier to achieve.  As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”

The second strategy is called reframing and addresses how you formulate your goal in the first place.  Have you phrased it as attaining something positive (I want to save more for retirement) or as avoiding something negative (I want to stop smoking)?  It is easier to start a new behavior than to stop an established habit, so if you’re working on stopping something, try to reframe the goal as achieving a substitute behavior instead.  For example, instead of focusing on “stopping smoking,” the smoker can focus on chewing gum when the urge to light up strikes.

Another strategy that builds on reframing is utilizing implementation intentions.  These are if-then statements that allow you to plan ahead to overcome barriers.  For example, the smoker can ascertain which situations are likely to make the urge to smoke stronger and plan in advance to avoid the situation or do something different.  For example, if you normally smoke while talking on the phone, you can keep a pencil and paper by the phone and doodle instead.  If you normally smoke after lunch, you can go for a walk instead. This in essence takes the control of the behavior out of your hands and puts it in the control of the situation.

Implementation intentions are a “pre-decision” strategy—they involve making a decision ahead of time.  This is just one type of pre-commitment strategy  Pre-commitment strategies involve making a commitment that boxes you in to adhering to the behavior by making it difficult to back out because of fear of embarrassment or because the commitment is painful to undo. For example, if you are having trouble getting started at the gym, paying up front for a series of personal trainer sessions can make it easier because there are both social expectations and financial cost to changing your plans at the last minute.  Committing to meet a friend at the gym on a set schedule accomplishes the same purpose without the financial commitment.

Consider, though, that financial commitment is a strong motivator.  The website www.stickK.com was founded on that principle.  You can use the website to set up a pre-commitment strategy where you get fined, in amounts you set, for failing to meet your goal.  Normally, the fine is sent to a friend or to a charity you designate, but for extra incentive, you can even designate that your fines be sent to an “anti-charity,” one whose goals you abhor (a liberal donating to a conservative politician or cause, or vice versa, for example).

 In general, the closer we are to a goal, the stronger the incentive to either achieve it or avoid it.  This refers to both physical closeness and closeness in time.  One reason that pre-commitment works is that it creates a delay, or distance in time, between the decision to change and actually carrying out the change. When we are close to something that normally tempts us, the siren call of the temptation is loud and strong (and the negative effects of something that we would normally avoid are more salient).  If we want to chew the gum rather than smoke the cigarette or go to the gym rather than veg out on the couch, we are better off committing ourselves now rather than deciding in the heat of the moment.  George Ainslie has shown that, when asked to make a choice between receiving $50 today or a $100 a year from now, the majority of people choose the immediate $50.  However, when you add a delay—the choice between $50 in 3 months versus $100 in 9 months—the preference reverses.  The effects of adding a delay are strong enough that you can even get the effect in pigeons!   When the choice is one where there are temptations, use the power of time delay to pre-commit yourself to the choice that is in your longer-term self-interest.

To summarize, one would be wise to create plans that (a)  break the larger goal into small, do-able action steps; (b) reframe the goal to achieve a substitute behavior when the goal is an avoidance goal (one where you are trying to stop or reduce a behavior); (c) plan ahead for expected barriers with “if-then” plans; and (d) make it easier for yourself to adhere to a plan by locking yourself in with a pre-commitment device (e.g., paying for a series of personal trainer sessions in advance).

 Keep an eye out for our final goal-related post – creating habits.