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Be Careful What You Plan For

The best plans for when you're freaking out.

If you read my last blog post, you'll know that I am a big fan of planning. If-then planning, in particular, is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take steps to reach your goal (e.g., "If I am hungry and want a snack, then I will choose a healthy option like fruit or veggies,") can double or triple your chances for success. But once you've decided to make an if-then plan, the next thing you need to do is figure out what goes in it. And it turns out that some plans suit each of us better than others.

Imagine for a moment that you are preparing for an upcoming exam, knowing that you are the kind of person who tends to break into a cold sweat at the sight of one of those oval-filled answer sheets or a #2 pencil. You have what psychologists call "high test anxiety," and it's a real problem for you, because being anxious during an exam makes you easily distractible and less able to focus on answering the questions. So, having read my last blog post, you decide to make an if-then plan for dealing with your problem. "If I am getting distracted during the exam, then I will......" What? What should you do? Should you plan to increase your efforts and focus on the task at hand (the exam), or should you plan to ignore the distraction?

Those two options may sound similar to you, but from a psychological perspective, they actually aren't. One plan emphasizes how you should approach the task, (by working even harder on the exam) and the other emphasizes how you should deal with the distraction (by ignoring it). If instead your goal were eating better to lose weight, it would be the difference between planning what you would eat more of (fruits and vegetables) or planning what you would avoid eating (temptations like candies and junk food).
You might think that both kinds of plans would get the job done equally well for anyone, but that's not the case. A recent study by Peter Gollwitzer, Gabriele Oettingen, and Elizabeth Parks-Stamm shows just how important it is for each of us to tailor the plans we create to our own personality. If, for instance, you are someone who is highly anxious, you need to choose your plan wisely.

In their study, the researchers began by asking each participant (NYU students) to indicate how much they suffered from test anxiety. Next, the students were told that they would be taking a very difficult math exam, where each multi-step problem required considerable memory and focus. Entertaining commercials would play on a portion of the students' computer screen, and they were told to try to ignore the commercials and concentrate instead on solving as many math problems as possible.

Before beginning, each participant made one of two types of if-then plans: ones that emphasized focusing on the math task ("If I hear or see the commercials, then I will increase my efforts on the math task!"), or ones that emphasized ignoring the distractions ("If I hear or see the commercials, then I will ignore them!")

Parks-Stamm, Gollwitzer, and Oettingen found that the more anxious the student was about test-taking, the more effective the distraction-avoiding plans were, and the less effective the task-focused plans were. In fact, among high-anxiety students, those who planned to ignore the distraction solved nearly 50% more problems (78 vs. 54) than those who planned to focus even more on the test!

So when you're feeling anxious about reaching a goal, think about what stands in your way. Then, try making if-then plans to prepare yourself for the obstacles, distractions, and temptations that might derail you. Creating plans that focus on what could go wrong can be the best way to keep it from happening in the first place.

E. Parks-Stamm, P. Gollwitzer, & G. Oettingen (2009) Implementation intentions and test anxiety: Shielding academic performance from distraction. Learning and Individual Differences, 20, 30-33.…

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