When you think about staying on track with your goals, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A lot of people would say, “I need to get motivated” or maybe, “I need more discipline.”
It turns out, researchers have found that neither motivation nor discipline are the determining factors that make some people follow through on their goals while others don’t.
In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers measured how frequently people exercised over a two-week period when given exercise as a goal. The researchers randomly assigned 248 adults to one of three groups.
Group 1 was the control group. Participants were asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Before they left, each person was asked to read the opening three paragraphs of an unrelated novel.
Group 2 was the motivation group. These participants were also asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Then, each person was asked to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise for reducing the risk of heart disease. Participants in Group 2 were also told, “People who have stuck to a regular exercise program have found it to be very effective in reducing their chances of developing coronary heart disease.”
Group 3 was the intention group. To ensure that Groups 2 and 3 were equally motivated, Group 3 also read the motivational pamphlet and got the same speech as Group 2. Then Group 3 was also asked to explicitly state their intention to exercise by completing the following statement: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].” After receiving these instructions, all three groups went on their way.
Two weeks later, here’s what the researchers found: In the control group, 38% of participants exercised at least once per week. In the motivation group, 35% of participants exercised at least once per week. But in the intention group, 91% of participants exercised at least once per week! Simply by writing down a plan that stated exactly when and where they intended to exercise, the participants in Group 3 were much more likely to follow through.
It turns out that the thing that pulls out both motivation and discipline and turns them into real-life action is having a plan for implementation. On the website of behavioral psychology expert James Clear, he cites 100 separate studies in a wide range of situations that reached the same conclusion: “People who explicitly state when and where their new behaviors are going to happen are much more likely to stick to their goals.” One reason this works, Clear says, is that when our goals have defined times and spaces, our life’s events and environments become the cues that remind us to follow through on our plans.
Just making these plans in our heads isn’t enough. We need to write them down—and we need to refer to them often. Otherwise, they’ll disappear into the ether of our busy lives. How we write down our plan doesn’t matter all that much, so long as we do, in one way or another. As a rule, whatever is easiest for you to do is also the best way for you to do it.
Experiment a little until you find the method that’s right for your needs and personality. Google calendar is an option, if online planning works best. If you do use an online calendar, consider also writing your plan on paper, either before or after you put it online. Why? Because research indicates that when we write something with pen and paper (versus using a keyboard), the movement of our hands triggers a brain reaction that makes our words stick more easily in our memories. The Best Day Ever Weekly Scheduler notepad (in either vertical or horizontal formats) is a fun and handy way to get it down on paper.
The world is full of daily planners, but the best time-management planning system is the one you will actually use!
Photo by Alexa Williams on Unsplash