Planning: intention and implementation

Once we've decided on our goal we need to think about implementing it. Overlooking the planning stage or planning in a vague, haphazard way results in us not knowing how to get from where we are to where we want to be. We would rarely think of embarking on a long journey without first thinking about how we are going to get there, and the same is true for goals. Planning also reduces the chance that we will divert from the course that takes us towards our goal; no matter how specific our goal is, if we haven't planned, we won't get there.

Take, for example, a New Year's resolution; it's 31 January and we're thinking to ourselves, 'I really need to exercise more', or quit smoking or be kinder to people I really don't like. Perhaps we join a gym, and make a promise to ourselves that we'll work out three or four times a week. But, within a matter of weeks or even days, our visits to the gym have dwindled and we're back on the settee watching the latest episode of our favourite TV show.

Most New Year's resolutions fail a few weeks after they are made; some after only a few days. Why, then, are people so poor at succeeding in the pursuit of their goals, even if such goals can potentially result in better health, higher quality of life or improved academic outcomes? Sometimes it's simply because our goals are too big. It's good to set ourselves a challenge, but often our goals are simply unmanageable and we haven't broken them down into manageable chunks. The big issue, however, concerns the difference between what New York University psychologist Peter Gollwitzer describes as goal intentions and implementation intentions, or willpower and waypower (Gollwitzer, 1999). A New Year's resolution is a decision to carry out an action (or the inhibition of a negative one), that is, a goal intention.

This is all well and good, but often we make the intention without understanding how we can actually implement it. It's a little like deciding to follow a vegan diet when your kitchen is still full of animal products; in the end, you spend all week eating porridge made with water and by Friday you decide veganism just isn't for you. Your goal had the intention, but, like most New Year's resolutions, the implementation (or the plan) was absent. Had your first goal been to research vegan diets and stock your kitchen with vegetables and dairy alternatives, your goal would have stood a better chance of success. It might also have been that a vegan diet was a step too far; after all, you're virtually a carnivore. Perhaps a better idea would have been to eliminate red meat from your diet and work through a series of substages until you could avoid all animal-based products.

Helping students to devise and work towards goals follows the same pattern. A student might have a goal in mind, such as to increase their current level of progress by one grade, but in order to work towards that goal our student needs to know how to achieve it (the steps involved in going from intention to implementation), otherwise our student is more likely to abandon the goal altogether at the first sign of setback. This might sound straightforward, but from what we understand about resolutions failure, this is the stage that seems most likely to be neglected.

As teachers, we might have other goals in mind for our students. Perhaps we have a student who finds it difficult to concentrate in class. Setting a goal of concentrating more is too vague even though there is a goal intention. We would need to narrow down the outcome we desire and set that as a goal, or break down the long-term goal into manageable chucks. How we accomplish this will often depend on the specific needs of the child, but could begin by ensuring that lessons are structured and rules are clear (or re-emphasising existing rules). It's true that children crave stability and routine, yet in reality, so do adults. We are all uncertainty-avoidant to some degree, so providing routine and certainty (and reinforcing these through habit formation) can benefit all, not just the child who insists on calling out instead of raising their hand. In such a case, the student should also be encouraged to self-monitor or apply meta-cognitive strategies, for example, 'if you feel yourself about to call out/then raise your hand’.

Peter Gollwitzer and Paschal Sheeran illustrated why implementation intention is important to goal pursuit (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). They asked students to carry out an assignment over the Christmas holidays where they were expected to write a report on how they spent Christmas Eve. There are obviously a number of problems associated with such a task, the main one being that Christmas represents a time when young people would rather be doing anything else than a written assignment. In fact, this was all part of the plan because Gollwitzer and Sheeran needed to be sure that the assignment represented a challenge. Some of the students were instructed to think about when, how and where they would complete the assignment, while the remainder were given no guidance at all. Those students who formed an implementation intention were twice as likely to complete the task on time. The where and when acted as situational cues, nudging their behaviour towards carrying out the task, but they also acted as a subtle commitment to carry out the task at a particular time and place.

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