Planning and Bad Habits

Changing bad habits via good planning? Psychology professor Ian Newby-Clark lists five things you need to know about effective habit change last week on Zen Habits.

The first thing he lists is working on one habit at a time. Consider his points 2-4 that follow. How much does this apply to business?

  1. Create a Plan and Write it Down. It is not enough to say to yourself, "I am going to get more done at work." Think about it this way: What if you asked a randomly selected working-person,  "Are you trying to get more done at work?" Almost everybody would say, "Yes, of course." And the response would be the same if you asked about exercising more often, eating better, or paying more attention to international affairs. It’s in our nature to want to do better. We almost always want to do better. But wanting isn’t enough. You must make a plan. Write it down. Be as specific as possible. Does Jim plan to go into work early or stay late? Will he eat at his desk? Will he exercise good email and phone discipline? Jim needs to create a plan and write it down.

The response would also be the same if you’re starting a new business, or growing an existing business, or planning for a new product, or a new group or division, a new location.  "Write it down. Be as specific as possible."

  1. Refine Your Plan. Now you need to refine your plan. In particular, you need to be realistic. Put your plan in a drawer for a day or so and come back to it with fresh eyes. Look at each sentence and ask yourself, "Really? I can do that?" Find someone who will give you an honest opinion. Have her read your plan and point out the bits that seem a bit pie-in-the-sky. You must do this because of what years of research shows: People’s plans are far too optimistic. In fact, in one study I showed that people’s ‘realistic’ plans for exercising more often are virtually the same as their ‘best case scenario’ plans. In other words, people think that everything is going to turn out as well as it possibly can. Well, I don’t know what world you live in, but in mine things rarely turn out in the best possible way. So, to avoid disappointment and discouragement, cast a critical eye on your plan and make sure that it is truly realistic. In the case of Jim, he should question the part of his plan that has him going in early and staying late everyday—even on Friday!

This too applies quite well to business planning, it has to be realistic or it doesn’t work. What’s the point of planning an ad campaign you can’t afford, or a website you can’t build.   

  1. Make Mini-Plans. You’ve worked on your plan and it is much improved. You’ve taken out all of the bits about you leaping tall buildings in a single bound and cooking a three course meal at the same time. But having a good plan isn’t enough. You have to make mini-plans (research psychologists call them ‘implementation intentions’). For example, Jim plans to go into work an hour early on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. He has also plans to stay late on Wednesday. How, precisely, will he change his work hours? Truly, the devil is in the details.

    Jim must mini-plan. For the days that he plans to go in early, he should create a mini-plan the night before. He could tell himself: "When the alarm goes off at five, I will shower, get dressed, drink my breakfast shake, and drive to work." For Wednesday nights, he could tell himself, "When it’s 5:30, I will eat a quick snack and work for another 2 hours." Forming a mini-plan seems like such a simple thing. And it is. But, over and over again, researchers (led by Peter Gollwitzer) have shown the power of mini-plans to bridge the gap between wanting to get something done and getting it done.

The mini-plan applies as well to business planning. A lot of that goes straight into the milestones, which end up putting specifics into how to design and deliver the product, the marketing launch, the Web launch, the direct sales plan, the seminar plan, etc.

The fifth point on the list is "repeat repeat repeat." I call that plan as you go.

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