I'll do it at some point.
I'll answer this message later.
I could try this sometime.
The most common consequence of these thoughts is a lot of procrastination. The person who has them may genuinely intend to do the task, but with the "when" being vague, there's nothing that would propel them into action.
Here are some thoughts the person could have instead:
- When I find myself using the words "later" or "at some point", I'll decide on a specific time when I'll actually do it.
- If I'm given a task that would take under five minutes, and I'm not in a pressing rush, I'll do it right away.
- When I notice that I'm getting stressed out about something that I've left undone, I'll either do it right away or decide when I'll do it.
Picking a specific time or situation to serve as the trigger of the action makes it much more likely that it actually gets done.
Could we apply this more generally? Let's consider these examples:
- I'm going to get more exercise.
- I'll spend less money on shoes.
- I want to be nicer to people.
All of these goals are vague. How will you actually implement them? As long as you don't know, you're also going to miss potential opportunities to act on them.
Let's try again:
- When I see stairs, I'll climb them instead of taking the elevator.
- When I buy shoes, I'll write down how much money I've spent on shoes this year.
- When someone does something that I like, I'll thank them for it.
These are much better. They contain both a concrete action to be taken, and a clear trigger for when to take it.
Turning vague goals into trigger-action plans
Trigger-action plans (TAPs; known as "implementation intentions" in the academic literature) are "when-then" ("if-then", for you programmers) rules used for behavior modification [i]. A meta-analysis covering 94 studies and 8461 subjects [ii] found them to improve people's ability for achieving their goals [iii]. The goals in question included ones such as reducing the amount of fat in one's diet, getting exercise, using vitamin supplements, carrying on with a boring task, determination to work on challenging problems, and calling out racist comments. Many studies also allowed the subjects to set their own, personal goals.
TAPs were found to work both in laboratory and real-life settings. The authors of the meta-analysis estimated the risk of publication bias to be small, as half of the studies included were unpublished ones.
TAPs work because they help us notice situations where we could carry out our intentions. They also help automate the intentions: when a person is in a situation that matches the trigger, they are much more likely to carry out the action. Finally, they force us to turn vague and ambiguous goals into more specific ones.
A good TAP fulfills three requirements [iv]:
- The trigger is clear. The "when" part is a specific, visible thing that's easy to notice. "When I see stairs" is good, "before four o'clock" is bad (when before four exactly?). [v]
- The trigger is consistent. The action is something that you'll always want to do when the trigger is fulfilled. "When I leave the kitchen, I'll do five push-ups" is bad, because you might not have the chance to do five push-ups each time when you leave the kitchen. [vi]
- The TAP furthers your goals. Make sure the TAP is actually useful!
However, there is one group of people who may need to be cautious about using TAPs. One paper [vii] found that people who ranked highly on so-called socially prescribed perfectionism did worse on their goals when they used TAPs. These kinds of people are sensitive to other people's opinions about them, and are often highly critical of themselves. Because TAPs create an association between a situation and a desired way of behaving, it may make socially prescribed perfectionists anxious and self-critical. In two studies, TAPs made college students who were socially prescribed perfectionists (and only them) worse at achieving their goals.
For everyone else however, I recommend adopting this TAP:
When I set myself a goal, I'll turn it into a TAP.
[i] Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.
[ii] Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.
[iii] Effect size d = .65, 95% confidence interval [.6, .7].
[iv] Gollwitzer, P. M., Wieber, F., Myers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2010). How to maximize implementation intention effects. Then a miracle occurs: Focusing on behavior in social psychological theory and research, 137-161.
[v] Wieber, Odenthal & Gollwitzer (2009; unpublished study, discussed in [iv]) tested the effect of general and specific TAPs on subjects driving a simulated car. All subjects were given the goal of finishing the course as quickly as possible, while also damaging their car as little as possible. Subjects in the "general" group were additionally given the TAP, "If I enter a dangerous situation, then I will immediately adapt my speed". Subjects in the "specific" group were given the TAP, "If I see a black and white curve road sign, then I will immediately adapt my speed". Subjects with the specific TAP managed to damage their cars less than the subjects with the general TAP, without being any slower for it.
[vi] Wieber, Gollwitzer, et al. (2009; unpublished study, discussed in [iv]) tested whether TAPs could be made even more effective by turning them into an "if-then-because" form: "when I see stairs, I'll use them instead of taking the elevator, because I want to become more fit". The results showed that the "because" reasons increased the subjects' motivation to achieve their goals, but nevertheless made TAPs less effective.
The researchers speculated that the "because" might have changed the mindset of the subjects. While an "if-then" rule causes people to automatically do something, "if-then-because" leads people to reflect upon their motivates and takes them from an implementative mindset to a deliberative one. Follow-up studies testing the effect of implementative vs. deliberative mindsets on TAPs seemed to support this interpretation. This suggests that TAPs are likely to work better if they can be carried out as consistently and as with little thought as possible.
[vii] Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Topciu, R. A. (2005). Implementation intentions, perfectionism, and goal progress: Perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(7), 902-912.