This Will Take No Time At All

Every Saturday morning, while my husband JD is eating his cereal and attempting to fully awaken, I ambush him with the list of household chores and errands I’ve been making all week (and saving for when he’ll be home to help me.)  Every single time, an argument ensues.  At its core is JD’s unshakeable belief that any task, no matter how complex or difficult, can be completed in about 15 minutes.  “Let’s go out and have some fun, “ he’ll say, “and we’ll tackle that stuff when we get back this afternoon.”  “But there won’t be enough time!” I reply, with mounting frustration.  “It will be fine,” he says.  He is almost always wrong.

As much as I enjoy giving him a hard time about his total inability to judge how long something will take, the truth is that most people aren’t much better at it.  In fact, human beings are generally pretty lousy when it comes to estimating the time they will need to complete a task.  Psychologists refer to this as the planning fallacy, and it’s an all too common problem – one with the very real potential to screw up our plans and keep us from reaching our goals.

Studies show that the planning fallacy can be attributed to several different biases we have when estimating how long it will take to do just about anything.  First, we routinely fail to consider our own past experiences while planning.   When my husband tells me it will take him 15 minutes to vacuum the carpets, he is ignoring the fact that it took him an hour to do it last time.   And as any professor can tell you, most college seniors, after four straight years of paper-writing, still can’t seem to figure out how long it will take them to write a 10-page paper.  We just don’t take our past into account the way we should when thinking about our future.

Second, we ignore the very real possibility that things won’t go as planned – our future plans tend to be “best-case scenarios.”    So running to the store for a new vacuum cleaner might take 15 minutes – if there is no traffic, if they carry the model we’re looking for, if we find it right away, and if there aren’t long lines at the register.

Lastly, we don’t think about all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task, and consider how long each part of the task will take.   When you think about painting a room, you may picture yourself using a roller to quickly slap the paint on the walls, and think that it won’t take much time at all – neglecting to consider how you’ll first have to move or cover the furniture, tape all the fixtures and window frames, do all the edging by hand, and so on.

So while we all tend to be prone to the planning fallacy to some extent, some of us fall into its trap more often than others. People in positions of power, for example, are particularly vulnerable, because feeling powerful tends to focus us on getting what we want, ignoring the potential obstacles that stand in our way.  A recent set of studies by Mario Weick and Ana Guinote shows that such a narrow focus does indeed turn powerful people into very poor planners.

In one study, half of the student participants were made to feel powerful (by being told that their opinion would influence the course requirements established for incoming students).  Next, all students were asked to estimate when they would finish an upcoming major assignment.   Everyone was overly-optimistic, but powerful students were significantly more so.  Powerful students estimated that they would finish their assignments 2.5 days before they actually did, while the control group was on average only 1.5 days late.    So feeling powerful makes you think you’ll take a whole day less to complete the assignment than you would have guessed had you been feeling a little more ordinary.

A second study induced feelings of power by having some of the participants recall a time in their past when they felt very powerful, and this produced a similar result.  Powerful participants estimated that it would take them only 4 minutes to complete a proofreading task that actually took 9 minutes, compared to the control group’s estimate of 6.5 minutes.

In a third study, participants who were made to feel powerful thought it would take them less time to write an essay, get ready for an evening out, shop at the supermarket, and prepare a 3 course meal, than the control group.   Importantly, these effects completely disappeared when powerful participants were explicitly told to recall how much time these activities had taken them in the past, and use that information to make their estimates.  So when powerful people are forced to focus on all the relevant information, their planning is far more accurate.

When you’re making a plan and estimating how long it will take, be sure to stop and

1) consider how long it has taken you in the past,

2) identify the ways in which things might not go as planned, and

3) spell out all the steps you will need to take to get it done.

This is particularly important when you are in a position of power, so make sure that there are safeguards or reminders in place to help you to consider all the information you should.  Otherwise, you may fall victim to the everything-takes-15-minutes kind of optimism that can lead to disaster.  (Yet another reason my husband is so fortunate to have married me, as I frequently point out to him.)

M. Weick & A. Guinote (2010) How long will it take? Power biases time predictions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in press.



Be Careful What You Plan For

[caption id="attachment_30" align="alignnone" width="98" caption="The best plans for when you're freaking out."][/caption]

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.



The Motivational One-Two Punch for Overcoming Bad Habits

If you want to maintain a healthy weight, there is no great mystery – eat less, exercise more, and you will eventually reach your goal.   So why, then, do most of us struggle to lose weight and keep it off?  One answer is that we’ve developed a lot of bad habits that sabotage our chances for success.  We snack too much between meals.  We eat when we are bored, anxious, or depressed.  We reach for the bag of chips or the candy bar, rather than the apple or the carrot sticks.  We finish everything on our plates too quickly, rather than stopping when we’ve had enough to satisfy our hunger.  We supersize it, when the “regular” size is already way too big to be good for us.

The thing about habits that makes them so difficult to overcome is that they are relatively automatic.  In other words, we engage in these behaviors without the conscious intention to do so.   It turns out to be particularly hard to stop yourself from eating too much when you aren’t even really aware that you’re doing it in the first place.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to put an end to these self-sabotaging habits.  Recent research by Gabriele Oettingen, Peter Gollwitzer, and their colleagues shows that two strategies, when used together, create a particularly potent combination for habit-fighting: mental contrasting and if-then planning.

Mental contrasting, in a nutshell, involves thinking positively about how it will be when you achieve your goal, while thinking realistically about what it will take to get there. First, you imagine how you will feel attaining your goal, and then you reflect on the obstacles that stand in your way.  For instance, if you wanted to get a high paying job after college, you would start by imagining the sense of pride and excitement you would feel accepting a lucrative offer at a top firm.  Then, you would think about what stands between you and that offer – namely, all the other really outstanding candidates that will be applying for jobs.  Kind of makes you want to send out a lot of applications, doesn’t it?  That’s called experiencing the necessity to act – it’s a psychological state that is crucial for achieving a goal. Daydreaming about how great it will be to land that job can be a lot of fun, but it won’t get you anywhere. Mental contrasting turns wishes and daydreams into reality, by bringing into focus what you will need to do to make it happen.

Once you’ve set a goal, perhaps the most common problem we run into when actually trying to achieve it is missing opportunities to take action.   We get preoccupied by other goals, or simply so distracted that we forget about our goal entirely, and don’t notice an opportunity when it arises.  Sometimes we “miss” opportunities because we are reluctant to take the necessary steps to reach our goal, especially when it is difficult or just no fun at all (As for myself, I am very loathe to give up all those delicious snacks).   Whatever the reason, we are constantly letting opportunities to achieve our goals slip through our fingers.  If we want to succeed, we literally need to learn how to seize the moment.  This is precisely what if-then plans are designed to do.

Forming an if-then plan (or what Gollwitzer calls an implementation intention) starts with taking a goal you want to achieve, and then spelling out exactly when, where, and how you will achieve it:  If I am in this situation, then I will take this action.  For example, if your goal is to work out more, you might form the plan: “I will work out for an hour at the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays before work.”  So if you’ve made an if-then plan, then you know that when it’s Monday morning, it’s time to hit the gym before work.  You’re less likely to let the opportunity to act on your goal pass you by.

In a study that will appear soon in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Oettingen and Gollwitzer, along with Marieke Adriaanse, Erin Hennes, Denise De Ridder, and John De Wit, tried putting these two powerful strategies together to help people overcome the often irresistible temptation of cookies and chips (they refer to this strategy combo as “MCII”:  mental contrasting + implementation intentions).

Female participants who wanted to reduce their unhealthy snacking kept a food diary detailing their daily indulgences.  Half of the participants in the study were instructed to also complete a “mental exercise” to help them reach their goal (MCII).  First, they engaged in mental contrasting by writing briefly about both the positive aspects of successfully reducing their snacking (e.g., losing weight, feeling healthier), as well as the primary obstacle standing in their way (e.g., the tendency to eat when bored or stressed).  Next, they formed an if-then plan for how they would cope with that obstacle, replacing the unhealthy snack with a piece of fruit (e.g., “If I am bored and I feel like having a snack, then I will eat an apple.”)

Even though both the MCII group and the control group were equally committed to reaching their goal of snacking less, over the course of the following week the women in the MCII group consumed a whopping 1125 fewer snack calories on average than those in the control group!

In a second study, the researchers showed the using either mental contrasting or if-then planning alone is far less effective than the MCII combo.  Their data suggests that engaging in mental contrasting helps people to have greater clarity about what their obstacles to success really are, and as a result they form better, more effective plans.  And it doesn’t just work for snacking!  Similar results have recently been obtained in studies of exercise, test preparation, and even time management.

So the next time you find yourself struggling to rid yourself of a bad habit, no matter what it is, try the MCII exercise:  think about how great it will be if you succeed, identify what stands in your way, and make an if-then plan to deal with it.   These simple steps are a tried-and-true recipe for success.