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The Power of a Plan

New research and new tools mean less procrastination

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology along with new features on smart phones may mean a lot less thinking and more doing.

In a series of well-designed studies, E.J. Masicampo (Wake Forest University) and Roy Baumeister (Florida State and PT Blogger) demonstrated that committing to a specific plan for a goal frees up cognitive resources for our other pursuits. So, in addition to helping us be more successful with the specific goal we're planning, planning lets us get on with other stuff too. Once a plan is made, we can stop thinking about the one goal and make room for others. Of course, this is absolutely necessary as we all juggle many goals throughout our days and lives.

These plans are similar to the predecisions that we make with implementation intentions - a concept developed by Peter Gollwitzer that I've discussed at length in previous blog postings. The key thing with these predecisions is that they put the cue for action into the environment so that we act more unconsciously in our goal pursuit, hence freeing up our cognitive resources to think about other goals. We don't unneccessarily perseverate on one goal and how to attain it.

Recently, Apple's new iPhone 4s, and similar smart phones that have modelled the iPhone's functionality, has been programmed to allow for geotagging of tasks. For example, if you have the goal to "pick up milk on the way home," your iPhone will use the GPS to notify you of your goal when you're actually on the way home and near the grocery store. This is a wonderful example of distributed cognition, where our planning is done in part by a machine.

Taken together, the research on the effective role of planning in our lives as well as the new capabilities of our mobile technologies offer us some exciting new possibilities for more successful goal pursuit. The message is: Plan first, make the plan specific and time/place dependent, let your smart phone do some of the thinking, and then move on to other tasks at hand.

Oh, of course, there's always the chance that you'll put it off when your phone reminds you that you need milk and the grocery store is just there on your left. Weakness of will is always possible when we're in the gap between intention and action. However, I think clear plans and useful tools will help narrow that gap considerably!


Masicampo, E.J., & Baumesiter, R.F. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/a0024192

Another paper by E.J. Masicampo that may be of interest:

Masicampo, E.J., Baumeister, R.F. (in press). Committed but close-minded: When making a specific plan for a goal hinders success. Social Cognition.

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