Productivity: Studies show that conservative goals and mini plans lead to greater achievement

We’ve all heard the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. A plan is necessary to succeed at anything, especially self-improvement. But people often labor without a clear plan in mind, leading them to become frustrated, upset, and ultimately hopeless.

Not all plans are created equal. Here are some suggestions that will help you construct better plans and improve your likelihood of success.

Plans Are Usually Too Optimistic

For over ten years, I’ve researched people’s plans. I’ve studied plans for completing tasks and plans for increasing exercise frequency. Over and over again, I’ve found that people’s plans are usually too optimistic. Most contain almost no consideration of how things might go wrong.

People anticipate that everything will go as well as it possibly can. They don’t consider set-backs or, heaven forbid, mistakes that they might make. In fact, they typically don’t consider the possibility that they will make any mistakes.

Because their plans are too optimistic, people’s expectations of themselves are too great. Research has consistently shown that people fall short of their expectations. People finish school assignments and household chores much later than expected. They don’t exercise as much as expected.

This problem is not trivial. Failing to meet expectations can make us feel bad about ourselves. In some instances, we might give up on our goals in despair.

Please keep this in mind. Consider the possibility of set-backs. By doing so, you can plan how to overcome them. Realize that sometimes reality ‘conspires’ against you: There might be times when your new exercise plan has to be put aside. Maybe your favorite uncle dies and you have to turn your life upside-down for a week. Maybe your kid gets sick (which means you get sick…). If you anticipate interruptions, you won’t be as thrown when they occur. When an interruption is over, you can get back to business.

Make Mini-Plans

Big picture plans are necessary, but they aren’t enough. Suppose you’re planning to exercise more. You could tell yourself something like, I’ll go to the gym three times each week. I’ll go in the morning before my husband and kids are awake.” Sounds good. But which three days? Will you prepare the night before?

There is no way to plan every detail. Plus, how would you remember it? Instead, form ‘mini-plans’ that are put into action soon after. For example, before you go to bed at night, simply tell yourself, “When I wake up in the morning, I will put on my gym clothes and get in the car.” It seems inconsequential, but research psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the value of forming these mini-plans (they call them ‘implementation intentions’).

So, failing to plan is planning to fail. But, remember to be realistic when you plan, and don’t expect the “grand plan” to do all the work for you. Mini-plans can do a lot to get you to your goals. Best of luck.

Ian Newby-Clark is Professor of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He studies habits and methods for changing them. You can read more about his findings at his blog, My Bad Habits.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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