Getting things done can be hard. As we progress through life we often find ourselves with more responsibilities, hobbies, interestingly eccentric side projects… and less time to do them all. Even with our cloud-based, color-coded, digital calendars some of us utilize to manage our daily work and personal schedules, we can still find ourselves scrambling for the motivation, energy, and time to do the things we need to do or wish we had more time for. This brief article will explore some scientifically proven ways we can use to bridge the gap between planning and action, so that we might free up time (as well as emotional and cognitive resources!) for the goals in our life we want to make priorities because they are important to us. These can include activities like: regular exercise, social interaction, studying for a test, meal preparation/eating healthy, and more.
Self-control is the capacity to regulate emotions, attention, and behavior when conflict emerges between competing options, be they different goals or temptations, occurring at the same time or separated in time. After several studies on this concept, researchers have found evidence that self-control can predict later life outcomes including educational achievements, wealth, health, and social relationships. However, while many of these longitudinal studies establish self-control as a biologically inherited trait that may be state-dependent as we come across varying challenges that arise within a day (state), researchers have also found evidence for a specific kind of behavioral and cognitive strategy that bypasses the need for direct involvement of self-control to attain goals. This strategy is called mental contrasting and implementation intentions, or MCII. While many might believe that intentional striving to attain a goal is a successful strategy, several decades of research provide only weak evidence to support this approach. In contrast, implementation intentions and mental contrasting have proved highly effective, in part because they reduce the load on conscious, willful effort over time.
Mental Contrasting: Have you ever had an assignment due the next day when you hadn’t even started yet? Maybe that’s a rhetorical question; we’ve all been bitten by the procrastination bug. In any case, I can bet that just by thinking about the difference between your current reality (e.g. browsing Netflix, Pinterest, or Instagram) and your goal (finish the paper!) may have been enough to get you off your couch and in front of your computer. In essence, this is mental contrasting: the visualization of your desired future, and then contrasting that with your current reality. This contrast can help spark motivation for goal striving, as the gap between your desired future and impending reality is realized. By contrasting the difference between where you currently are with where you want to be, you not only begin to bring “future” and “present” closer together, but you also become better at recognizing when a goal is so unrealistic or unimportant that you may need to adapt or let go of it altogether for something more realistically attainable.
Implementation Intentions: We have many if-then statements that help us overcome the large and small obstacles we encounter in our daily life. For example, “if I am hungry I will get something to eat from the store,” or “if I am lost I’ll open my map app.” These are examples of implementation intentions, or if-then statements that are planned in advance that specify where, when, and how to act upon our goal intentions. In short, by delegating our behavior from the self to the specified situational cue, what results is the activation of this goal-directed behavior when the situation is encountered. What this might look like: instead of scheduling a neat 1-hour block at 6pm to go to the gym, one might say “if I get home after 6pm I will go to the gym.” You can even supplement your exercise implementation intention by setting out your gym clothes in an easily accessible and visible place in your home. In this case, by planning our exercise routine based on this if-then statement, we effectively place the cue for action onto the environment rather than onto ourselves. A number of studies have documented the effectiveness of implementation intentions in general; examples include eating more fruit and vegetables, as well as changing undesired habits like drinking or smoking.
While getting things done can be hard, we can employ strategies like MCII to get closer to attaining our goals. The next time you are lamenting the fact that you haven’t finished your paper that’s due a week from now, or that you haven’t yet gone to the gym, maybe try thinking about the future you desire and mentally contrast it with your current reality. Additionally, you might develop specific if-then statements that you can apply to occupational, nutritional, physical, and emotional domains in your life. If you are reading this, then I suggest you give it a try: soon you just might find yourself setting new goals to conquer since your old goals are well behind you!
For additional information, you can refer to articles such as:
- Self-regulation of time management: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (Oettingen et al., 2015)