Imagine that you are enjoying a pleasant holiday cruising along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. You have rented a narrow boat from Pennine Cruisers, and have sustained yourself happily for three days using the provisions contained in the welcome pack, plus one pub lunch at The Old Swan in Gargrave.
On the fourth day you wake up looking forward to a breakfast of toasted rye bread and local honey, when you remember that, following one glass too many of rhubarb wine last night, you threw the last of the rye bread at a passing family of tufted ducks. You decide to embark on the one mile walk into Barnoldswick (known for being the largest town in the British Isles not to be served by any A roads) to find a bakery.
On your way there, you are passing a dry stone wall when you notice a man sitting on the other side looking lost and dishevelled. On closer inspection, you realise that it is the English composer and impresario of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
You ask if he is alright and he tells you that he is trying to get to Stoffen Spektakel, the European fabric fair, to buy some curtain material for his nephew. Upon further questioning, you discover that he left his Hampshire home six weeks ago on foot, with no transport or accommodation arrangements, no luggage or passport, and no idea of the direction he should be going. As he emerges from behind the dry stone wall, it becomes apparent he also has no trousers.
Unsurprisingly, he has missed Stoffen Spektakel by 17 days.
You send him home in a taxi and continue with your holiday.
What Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sorry tale illustrates is that it’s no good having a goal if you don’t have a clear plan to achieve it.
Getting a tetanus jab
In a 1965 study of Yale students, researchers were looking at how to convince more of them to get tetanus vaccinations.
Two strategies they tried were a booklet about how tetanus is transmitted and graphic photographs of people suffering with tetanus.
Neither strategy was effective at boosting vaccination rates.
However, a third strategy increased rates significantly – simply giving students a map of where the health centre was and its hours of operation.
The problem with the first two strategies was that the students already knew the importance of getting vaccinated – it was already a goal for them. What they needed was a plan to get there, and this is what the third strategy gave them.
It may seem obvious that we need a plan to get where we want to go, but so often we set ourselves vague goals without having any kind of clear plan in place, and then we wonder why we fail. “I’m going to lose weight”, “I’m going to get fit”, “I’m going to get so buff that Nicola Roberts from Girls Aloud will rue the day she didn’t reply to my tweet”. And we start, but we don’t get there.
But why exactly, from a psychological perspective, is a plan so important? To find out, let’s go shopping for fruity preserves!
Shopping for fruity preserves
In a study conducted in 2000, psychologists set up a display of jams at a grocery market. Over the course of several weekends, they alternated between having 6 flavours on display and having 24 flavours on display, and they measured the number of purchases made.
The results were dramatic.
They found that, when there were 6 flavours on display, 10 times as many people made a purchase as when there were 24 flavours on display.
What this tells us is that too much choice can have a paralysing effect on our minds. When a decision is too complex and there’s too much to think about, we’re far less likely to take action.
The benefit of a plan is that it takes choices away and makes decisions simple. Our course of action has been clearly laid out for us and we can proceed without having to think about it.
If you wake up in the morning and your plan for that day says that you are going for a three mile run round a specific route at 7.15am, you’re far more likely to do it than if you wake up with just a vague intention to go for a run. Without a plan you face a load of decisions about where to do it, when to do it and how much to do, which means there’s a good chance you’ll end up doing nothing at all.
Our short-term basic mind craves simplicity, and will turn away from anything that looks too complicated. By using our long-term advanced mind to put a clear plan in place, we’re setting the conditions for our basic mind to make the right decision.