OPINION3 May 2016

BE Bites: Why ‘making a plan’ helps to change people’s behaviour

Behavioural science Opinion UK

Using the ‘implementation intentions’ technique is a useful way of avoiding procrastination, says Crawford Hollingworth. He outlines when, where and how to use it.

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We are often prone to procrastination, putting off getting around to achieving things that need our attention such as paying bills on time or housework, or even our most desired goals, such as doing more exercise by going to the gym. Known as the ‘intention-behaviour gap’, the problem is one of the most common issues in human behaviour.

A key insight from behavioural science is how this problem can be solved by making a specific type of action plan for a goal – a concept known as implementation intentions. This builds follow-through and increases the chances that someone will succeed in attaining their goal or change their behaviour.

Specifically, implementation intentions involve asking people to think through and write down when, where and how they might achieve or begin to achieve a goal. The concept of implementation intentions was first developed by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer in 1999, and since then has generated considerable further research in many sectors.

Making a plan has been used successfully to steer and change behaviour in many different situations and sectors. Here are a few examples:

  • A healthcare company wanted to prompt employees to make a plan to get a flu vaccination. Employees were sent the date(s) and time(s) of free flu shots and the location of the clinic at the employees’ work site and asked to write down in a box printed on the mailing the date and time they planned to attend a clinic. This essentially free initiative increased flu shot uptake from 33% to 37%.
  • The website Stickk.com wanted to help people create a pledge (commitment contract) to achieve their goals. Their pledge has to define their goal in specific terms and then detail how they will achieve it. So for instance, if someone intends to run more, they are asked how often each week and for how long e.g. 30 minutes.
  • The Obama campaign team wanted to get voters to make a specific plan to vote in the 2012 US general election, and designed posters detailing ‘when, where and how’ they would vote on election day. This helped those people who intended to vote, but were perhaps unlikely to get round to it to formulate a plan of action.
  • The Behavioural Architects designed a study on how to increase adherence among diabetes patients with poor adherence. Patients were asked to sign a pledge detailing how, when and where they would take their medication as prescribed and secondly a specific feature they would change in their diet and a specific feature in their lifestyle they would change to become more active, such as walking to work instead of driving. By the end of the pilot study 70% of patients were fully adhering to their medication plan and had adopted a healthier lifestyle.

From these and many other research studies, behavioural scientists are now starting to understand why making a plan is so effective in changing behaviour. Researchers at Harvard University recently published a new paper* detailing why, through a BE lens, they think it works:

  • Building commitment: We know that simply asking people what they intend to do increases the chance that they will do it, so the act of making a plan helps to make people feel more committed to it. If that commitment or plan is made public, the effect is enhanced further – people often want to save face and maintain their identity as someone who follows through on plans to avoid cognitive dissonance. 
  • Chunking: Making a specific plan often makes a daunting goal feel more achievable. It also helps to chunk up the steps so people know what they need to do next. For example, if they don't yet know ‘where’ they might be able to fulfil their goal, they can start to solve that part of the plan next. 
  • Building memory: Making a specific plan helps people to overcome forgetfulness by identifying time and place based cues or triggers to jog people into enacting their plan, engaging in pre-programmed behaviours at specific moments – ‘If situation Y arises, I will do X.' Simple examples of this might be ‘if I brush my teeth, I will take my medication at the same time', or ‘if I take a lunch break, I will go for a walk in the park.'
  • Dialling down procrastination, power of now and status quo bias: Unpacking a goal into specific parts, some of which will often be very small and easy to solve can help people to generate action and reduce inertia.
  • Dialling down optimism bias and planning fallacy: People often tend to be overly optimistic about their likelihood of achieving a goal and tend to think it will be simpler and quicker to get done than it really is in reality. So breaking down the steps into a specific plan helps bring people back to reality as they begin to understand what the task really entails.

The researchers also ventured to look at how to maximise the effectiveness of making a plan. They offer the following advice:

  1. Have a single goal. Multiple goals can introduce too much complexity, increase forgetfulness and overwhelm any action through loss of focus.
  2. Make the plan specific. The more precise and less vague the plan is, the less room there is for later ‘negotiation’ with oneself. It is also more likely to create the necessary contextual cues which will trigger action. Founder of Stickk.com Dean Karlan notes that people are more successful when they have created a specific goal with a corresponding plan.
  3. Make the plan public. As we mentioned above, people feel a greater need to follow through on their plans if they are public, to maintain (or perhaps build!) their identity as someone who is accountable. Writing down the plan also increases our sense of commitment and helps build memory of the plan too.
  4. Visualise achieving the goal and completing the plan. Known as ‘mental contrasting’, this technique can help to build commitment and increase intrinsic motivation and emotional attachment to achieving the goal.
  5. Make the plan achievable all at once. The likelihood of completing a plan is higher if it can be completed in one step as there are likely to be fewer obstacles getting in the way.

For behaviour change practitioners, developing simple plans to help people execute their goals is a technique that can be applied in many different scenarios to ensure good response rates – from creating healthier lifestyles, to ensuring medication adherence, to paying off debt and making important personal financial decisions and changes. Just remember to apply ‘when, where and how’.

This is invaluable advice for anyone who, in the words of productivity expert Dave Allen, wants to ‘get things done’. 


*Rogers, Todd, Milkman, Katherine, John, Leslie and Norton, Michael "Beyond good intentions: Prompting people to make plans improves follow-through on important tasks" Behavioral Science and Policy, December 2015