How a Plan Drives Us to Succeed

This simple psychological approach has helped me keep up my exercise routine.

Posted Sep 26, 2019

Bruno Nascimiento/Unsplash
Source: Bruno Nascimiento/Unsplash

Two years ago, I sat on the corner cushion of our couch. It was dawn, and a foggy mist made it hard to see the rising sun. I was steeped in gray inside too. Unmotivated. Overweight. Fatigued. Ready for bed, though I had just gotten up. And, I live with chronic illness—rheumatoid arthritis—so pain was part of the deal too.

I was frustrated that I wasn’t motivated enough to get my body moving and exercising again.

I’d always done it before. Gone all in. And that was part of the problem. I’d read a study that recommended an hour of exercise and I’d push my arthritic body until I could hardly walk to the car. I’d quit, stiff and swollen, after about three days. Following those workout rules was not sustainable for me.

So, on that gray morning, I decided to do it differently. I made my own rules and began planning for a new lifestyle that would include a short workout at least four days a week

That plan—or my decision to make one in the first place—made all the difference.

Planfulness, which according to researchers is an aspect of conscientiousness, might be the quality that helps us succeed at our goals.

According to a paper published in Psychological Science, University of Oregon researcher Rita Ludwig and colleagues found that people who planned to workout did hit the gym more often. People with a “high-degree of planfulness,” were more likely to choose behaviors to support their goals.

In this study, planfulness is viewed more as a characteristic, than a choice. In developing my own workout routine, and achieving other goals, planning is something I choose to do. It’s a part of my goal-setting process.

So, before, I ever hit the gym, I spent a week planning how I would do it. I chose the schedule, approach, type of exercise.  So, by the time I got there, on that first day,  I didn’t have much thinking to do. This helped me immensely.

Planning the Actions to Support Your Goal

It’s one thing to have a goal of getting in shape. It’s a whole other thing to act in a way that gets my body off the couch and to the gym to actually accomplish the goal of getting in shape. For me, the thinking has always been my strong suit. Following through, a whole lot harder.

I hate working out. Still, do today, but that no longer keeps me from going. Because, I have a simple plan, and I stick with it. That has not only made it easier for me to keep to the workout routine, but it’s taken some pressure off. Because I have a structure in place, I just follow the guidelines I laid out two years ago. I no longer have any decisions to make. It doesn’t come down to willpower, or self-control, or desire. It is no longer burdensome. I look for the cues—for example, if I see my gym clothes on my dresser—then I go to the gym.

Setting the Intention

New York University psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls this an implementation intention and his research shows that we are twice as likely to succeed when we use one.

Using if/then statements, an implementation intention sets out an advance plan for how you are going to respond to set circumstances and move toward your goal.

Here’s how it works for me:

If it’s a weekday, then I go to the gym.

If I see my workout clothes laying on top of my dresser, then I go to the gym.

My plan doesn’t require me to evaluate anything. It doesn’t ask me if I feel like it or if I’m going to hate it or complain about it. I don’t have to think. I workout weekdays. I lay my sweats and t-shirt out on my dresser the night before. I get up, see the clothes, put them on and then I finalize the last part of If/Then Plan.

If I am wearing my workout clothes, then I exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes. Sometimes more. Never less. Either way, I’m getting some exercise in that I would have avoided before.

Another powerful practice I’ve used to make progress toward my exercise goal and others is called mental contrasting.

What is Mental Contrasting?

NYU Psychologist and researcher (who often conducts research with Gollwitzer) Gabriele Oettingen has found that “contrasting a desired future with present reality” can help us to pick better goals in the beginning and keep us working toward them until completion.

It works like this: When you consider what you want to accomplish—your goal—and contrast it with your current experience—where you are now—and then realistically identify the obstacles you may encounter between here and there, you’re less likely to be stymied by the struggles and more likely to persist until you overcome them.

I wanted to feel better. Have more energy, less pain. I was starting at a place where I was overweight, tired all the time, stuck, and frustrated.

The obstacles? The pain of chronic illness. Lack of time. Low energy, among others. And then, there was the burden of feeling like I had one more thing I had to manage and do. Another item on the to-do list. That added pressure and felt heavy and hard.  When I identified those obstacles—all of which continue to appear—I was able to offset them before they derailed me.

I decided to workout early in the day, before I was too tired. I planned ahead, so I had nothing to think about aside from driving to the gym. I took ibuprofen early, before the workout to help with the pain and reminded myself, that I would have more energy and less pain the better shape I got in. I also committed to short workout cycle at the beginning, one that I could maintain and manage on the tough days. And, each night, I still lay those gym clothes out.

After two years I continue to exercise four or five days a week. I’m more active in other ways too. I’m no longer tired all the time. I’ve lost 45 pounds (by doing several different things) and kept it off, and I have a greater sense of wellbeing, the kind that comes when we accomplish a meaningful goal.

I’m working on some others now. And making progress. There’s no magic to it, simply a plan that includes some of the specific behaviors I’ll take to move me closer to my goals. If I do those things, then, I’m confident I’ll make some real progress. At least that’s what I’m planning on.