Too many goals?

“Despite good intentions, most goals go unfulfilled.” This is the opening line to a research article published this fall, and it’s not news to most of us. This recently published study does have some surprises in terms of why some of our best intentions fail.

As I have outlined in a number of previous blog posts, implementation intentions are one of my favorite strategies for getting things done. This form of intention, originally described by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, involves making explicit where, when and how we will achieve a goal. These are specific precommitments to act when the environmental cue (the where and when) happens. When we make implementation intentions, we’re more likely to exercise, stop smoking, recycle, study for an exam, and many more of those “noble goals” for which we strive. In study after study, researchers have shown implementation intentions to be more effective than simple goal intentions or commitment to act on a goal --- that is, until now.

The thing about previous research, Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller explain, is that the focus has been on the effectiveness of implementation intentions on the achievement of single goals. But, who has single goals? We live with many goals that we constantly juggle. Their research question was, do implementation intentions work as well for “real life” where we have multiple goals?

Conceptually, you might expect that implementation intentions would work well when we’re juggling the many goals in our lives because the precommitment to act in response to an external contextual cue (e.g., In situation X, I’ll do behavior Y) frees up our capacity to think through other goals. For example, once I’ve made implementation intentions for my various goals, I can act more unconsciously in their pursuit. As the situations that serve as cues for action arise, I act. I can save my thinking for planning other things or for rethinking my plans when contingencies change.

The thing is, Dalton and Spiller argue, is that all of this depends on commitment to our goals. Without commitment, implementation intentions simply aren’t effective. And, most importantly, they argue that one way that we might unintentionally weaken our commitment to any one goal is to form specific plans for other goals. In this regard, they write,

“. . . any activity that draws attention to the conflicts and constraints (e.g., time, attention, energy) involved in executing multiple goals could potentially undermine commitment – including planning itself” (p. 601).

In other words, when we form specific implementation intentions for multiple goals, we anticipate greater difficulty (sometimes simply through goal conflict), and we become less committed to our goal. Ultimately, this weakened commitment undermines the effectiveness of implementation intentions. In addition, planning for multiple goals may lead us to stray from an intended task at any moment in favor of a non-target goal. We get distracted by other goals, and we fail to shield one intention from another.

Their research

Dalton and Spiller conducted 3 studies. If you actually wanted the details of each of these, you would be in a graduate program or reading the journal article ☺ It will suffice to say that in each study, they examined the role of implementation intentions when participants had multiple goals, as opposed to the single-goal focus of previous research. Overall, what they found was that the benefits of implementation intentions found in previous research with single goals didn’t extend to their multiple-goal research. In addition, their third study provided evidence that it is a process of undermining goal commitment that undermines the effectiveness of implementation intentions at the execution stage of a goal.

 Here’s how the authors summarize their studies and findings:

“In study 1, implementation intentions were applied to everyday goals, such as eating healthily and tidying up, and we followed participants’ goal success over a 5-day work- week. Study 2 was a laboratory experiment in which implemental planning was applied to simple, computer-based goals. These two experiments used vastly different goals, procedures, and measures of goal success, but pointed to the same conclusion: the benefits of implementation intentions for a single goal do not extend to multiple goals. To address why implemental planning is unsuccessful for multiple goals, we theorized that planning draws attention to the difficulty of executing those goals, which reduces commitment to those goals relative to other attractive pursuits. By compromising commitment at the planning stage, forming implementation intentions compromises success at the execution stage. Supporting this view, study 1 established mediation by relative goal commitment, and study 3 showed that planning affects the perceived difficulty of executing multiple goals” (p. 611)

However . . .

The authors’ third study also showed that participants could benefit from implemental plans if they were helped to view their goals as relatively easy to execute. When the participants weren’t overwhelmed by the task, the implementation intention planning didn’t affect execution (interestingly, some of the earliest research on implementation intentions by Gollwitzer also showed that this form of intention was more effective for difficult tasks, so there’s more research necessary to untangle these conflicting results).

Implications and Blogger’s thoughts on the study (A "straw man"?)

The authors do address the task difficulty issue I highlighted above. They write that, “When people juggle multiple goals, completing one task means neglecting or postponing others, which reduces the expected likelihood of ever achieving all goals. This sort of difficulty is hard to overcome and tends to undermine commitment. In fact, the difficulty associated with managing multiple goals may be particularly detrimental to commitment because constraints cannot be managed by effort and willpower alone” (p. 612). Of course they add that we need future research to address this.

Of course we need this research, because as much as we do learn that implementation intentions may have limitations in their effectiveness (a “boundary condition” as the authors call it), the authors set implementation intentions up a little in their study. How so? Well, they made the context more complex by setting the more realistic assumption of multiple goals. However, they still assumed that an individual might use a simple implementation intention. In a sense, we should have expected failure. In complex situations, we require complex strategies.

Each of us understands that there’s not one strategy that serves as a panacea for problems in goal pursuit. As soon as we move from a consideration of a single task, we also need to move to a consideration of multiple self-regulation strategies and volitional skills. Moreover, these strategies need to be context- and temporally-sensitive. In other words, we need to know when to apply each strategy based on the type of task and where we are in the process.

This is not new to many of us who study goal pursuit. For example, the work of Dr. Brian Little on Personal Projects Analysis that began in the late 1970s demonstrated both cross-project negative impact as well as cross-project facilitation. Some projects interfere with others while other projects help. These can be our own projects or the projects of significant others in our lives. It is truly a complex system. While we juggle these multiple goals, they affect each other in many ways and all of this changes over time.

This work on personal-project or goal pursuit provides a much more complex analysis of the nature of the goals in which we engage, including measures of our project commitment. I hope that future research adopts this project perspective, as I know it will be fruitful in further exploring issues raised in this paper. Unfortunately, the authors of this work seem unaware of this whole area of research related to goal pursuit.

Closing comment

Until we do see further research, each of us must recognize how complex goal pursuit is, yet at the same time how simple, particularly in terms of how important our own commitment to goal completion is.

Do you want to be more successful in your goal pursuit? Work on task commitment. Find the meaning in your work. Affirm the values that ground each of your goals. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!


Dalton, A.N., & Spiller, S.A. (2012). Too much of a good thing: The benefits of Implementation Intentions depend on the number of goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 600-614.

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