Goals word cloud.By Mr. Steve Martin

Despite our best intentions, many of the goals we set for ourselves go unfulfilled. To improve our career prospects, we’ll research going to night school but not make it to class. We’ll purchase a health club membership, only to find our attendance wanes after a couple of sessions. We promise to put a little extra cash aside towards that dream trip, but when the end of the week arrives, we convince ourselves we can always start next month. The relationship between intention and implementation is often a weak one. In previous INSIDE INFLUENCE REPORTS we have discussed various strategies to encourage people to follow through with their commitments. One of the more effective is to create a specific plan for where, when, and how they will go about accomplishing it. Persuasion scientists call this an implementation intention plan.

Often we have multiple goals that we’re juggling to accomplish. And at work we can face the challenge of persuading colleagues to commit to several important tasks. In situations like these, will the implementation intentions that serve single goals pretty well extend to an entire to-do list?

In their paper “Too much of a good thing” published in the Journal of Consumer Research, marketing professors Stephen Stiller and Amy Dalton believed that while creating an implementation intention for a single goal would increase the likelihood that it would be completed, that wouldn’t be the case for multiple goals. And three studies they carried out confirmed they were exactly right.

Woman juggling piggy bank, house, car, and groceries.In one, participants were randomly assigned to carry out either one or six everyday goals each day for a week. Additionally, half the participants made a simple commitment to carry out the assigned goal(s), but the other half were asked to create implementation plans. These implementation plans required them to ask themselves questions such as “When will you try to achieve the goal?” and “Where will you be when you carry out the task?”

The results were pretty clear. Creating an implementation intention for a single goal was beneficial, but for multiple goals disastrous. It seems that implementable planning for multiple objectives increases the salience of two things: the difficulty of juggling numerous goals compared to a single one, and the potential conflicts and constraints that exist between multiple goals.

What can be done when we are faced with the challenge of persuading people to complete multiple and often conflicting tasks and objectives? Two ideas come to mind.

The first is to frame multiple goals as relatively easy to execute in the context of even more challenging ones. In other words, set a contrast. Helpfully, Stiller and Dalton provide evidence for the effectiveness of this approach. Study participants who were assigned six tasks were more likely to complete them if, before creating implementation intentions, they were informed that other people were assigned even more tasks (10) than they were. It seems that delivering on multiple goals seems less difficult when we come to learn that others are juggling even more.

The second approach is to communicate how a seemingly distinct set of goals actually contributes to the fulfillment of a broader common purpose. For example, managers and leaders could allow time in meetings for teams to identify and openly discuss the synergies that exist within their multiple goals and not just the conflicts between them. Or in the case of taking a class, attending the gym and saving for that trip, framing them as all equally important contributors to your broader goal of experiencing a pleasurable and purposeful life.

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Join the discussion:
What tactics have you used to maintain your focus when achieving a goal?

What steps have you successfully taken to manage either multiple goals of your own or the goals of others? 

Source: Dalton, A.N., & Spiller, S.A. (2012). Too much of a good thing: The benefits of Implementation Intentions depend on the number of goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 600-614.

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