How "planful" are you? That is, how strongly do you agree with the following? "Developing a clear plan when I have a goal is important to me." And do you actually write out plans for reaching your goals, even if they're just a few quickly scribbled notes? The answers to these questions may predict how likely you are to achieve your goals, according to new research by a team of psychologists at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

The team, led by doctoral student Rita Ludwig decided to learn how personality traits affect achievement with a very straightforward experiment. At the beginning of the 2018 winter semester, they gave 282 students who used the campus gym a series of traditional personality tests that measured things like conscientiousness and grit. They also tested the students on their own Planfulness Scale, a set of 30 questions designed to determine "the tendency for people to exhibit patterns of thoughts about goals that have been shown to encourage goal achievement in laboratory research." And they invited them to write out plans for their gym attendance during the semester.

The researchers had an easy way to count how many times students went to the gym because they had to swipe a card each time, creating a record of their activity. The research team compared the students' number of card swipes during the fall 2017 semester, and continued tracking their visits throughout the winter 2018 semester. In all cases, they found that attendance dropped off later in the semester, perhaps because final exams were coming. But they found a significant connection between planfulness and gym attendance. In fact, a one point higher score on the researchers five-point Planfulness Scale corresponded to an extra 5.9 gym visits on average during the fall semester and 8.5 extra visits during the winter semester, after participants had written down their exercise plans.

How to be planful.

The researchers' main goal was to prove the validity of planfulness and the Planfulness Scale, and they succeeded. But for you and me and anyone else with goals to accomplish--whether they're goals for fitness or work or anything else--this whole experiment is excellent news because anyone can be more planful. If you recognize the importance of creating a plan to reach your goal or goals--and this research ought to convince you--then all you have to do is...do it. Take a few minutes with a pen and paper, or at your computer, or with your smartphone (in airplane mode) and write down each goal and a plan for getting there.

It doesn't matter how elaborate or bare-bones your written plan is. That was an unexpected finding for the researchers. "It seems logical that people who are successful with their goals would be able to write in detail about their planning process. We were surprised, then, to find no relationship between people's goal pursuit behavior and how they wrote about their goals," Ludwig told the Association for Psychological Science.

It's good news for me, though, since when I write out plans, my descriptions of goals and the steps I need to get there are usually only a few words--enough to remind me of exactly what I need to do. I believe the reason elaborately written plans don't matter is that the trigger is all you really need.

Next time you have a goal to achieve, make sure to write it down, along with a plan for getting there. It will only take you a few minutes. And, as this research shows, it will give you a much better chance at success.

Published on: Sep 30, 2019
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