Why You Should Make a Plan

Although productivity gurus have long touted the benefits of making a plan, some research suggests that making a plan can actually be detrimental to goal attainment. For example, when subjects are instructed to think about desirable outcomes, making a plan often decreases urgency because it is seen as progress toward those outcomes.

A new study by a pair of Florida State researchers looks at the effects of planning in the context of process-based thinking rather than the “outcome-based thinking” cited above, and their findings reveal why planning can be so helpful.

Unfinished goals caused intrusive thoughts during an unrelated reading task (Studies 1 and 5B), high mental accessibility of goal-related words (Studies 2 and 3), and poor performance on an unrelated anagram task (Study 4). Allowing participants to formulate specific plans for their unfulfilled goals eliminated the various activation and interference effects.


Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended—allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease—and is resumed at the specified later time.

Obviously the efficient allocation of cognitive resources can help almost anybody in their everyday lives, but I think this kind of finding has a lot of specific unacknowledged potential for education. Any given student is essentially tasked with distinct learning goals in at least five or six different subjects, and concern for all those goals can create a heavy cognitive burden. A simple solution is for teachers and schools to do a better job letting students know exactly how a class will progress and what skills they are expected to have at any point in time.  This could be done with improved syllabi or efficient use of the skill/course management software that is rapidly improving and finding its way into classrooms. At the very least, students will be more likely to feel as though there is a “plan” for their learning, and that will help keep struggles in one subject from creating distractions that exacerbate struggles in another subject.
Masicampo, E., & Baumeister, R. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (4), 667-683 DOI: 10.1037/a0024192


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