When struggling to achieve a particular goal, consider incorporating the use of pre-decisions to increase your chances of success. In over 94 studies the use of pre-decisions has shown to help get you started, keep you focused, conserve cognitive resources, and if for some reason you do become distracted, pre-decisions can help get you back on the right track.
As it sounds, a pre-decision is deciding on a particular course of action, prior to encountering the situation that will actually trigger the action. In research on goal setting and goal striving, the pre-decision is called an ‘implementation intention’. It is an intention to implement a particular course of action and generally follows a variation of the format, “If X occurs, then I will respond with Y action.”
An example is the goal of taking a daily supplement or multivitamin. Using a pre-decision, you might tie the act of taking the vitamin to the cue of drinking a delicious cup of coffee in the morning. The if/then protocol becomes, “If I drink my morning cup of coffee, then I will take my vitamin.” The cup of coffee becomes the relevant cue that triggers the pre-decision. This technique harnesses the findings of a number of psychological studies, specifically those related to concepts such as priming, recency, availability, and associationism.
The Power of the Pre-Decision
There are numerous potential benefits to supplementing your goals with pre-decisions. Here are some of the benefits to consider:
(1) Situational Reminders
Not every goal fits nicely into a day planner or can be triggered by setting an alarm. This means that sometimes we forget, or fail to recognize an opportunity to act on a goal. For instance, you might have an abstract goal to save money, but under what conditions is this goal actually triggered? Using an if/then protocol you can establish a situational cue, “If an item is over $X, then confirm the purchase is a need, not a want.” Using this type of pre-decision, it is the situation that reminds you of the opportunity to work towards your goal and save.
(2) Staying Focused
Some goals require actions that are repetitive. You typically don’t lose 20 lb, read “War and Peace,” or build a bridge in one day. Instead, you need to stay focused over a much longer period of time, returning periodically to make progress towards the goal. A common way to try and maintain focus is to schedule the required actions, e.g. every Thursday or 3x a week. A common challenge to this approach, is that life is not always so kind as to not get in the way of your schedule. Being rather dynamic, life can offer up competing goals that might distract you from your plans. Therefore, similar to a situational reminder, pre-decisions can be used to help keep you focused by relying on a reliable cue that is repetitive. Connecting the morning ritual of coffee to the taking of a multivitamin is a good example.
(3) Small Wins
When you have a larger goal, accumulating a few small wins along the way can help keep you motivated. One way to register some small wins, is through the use of milestones or subgoals. Yet another way, is by using pre-decisions. Reaching a milestone or accomplishing a subgoal provides positive feedback, it reinforces that you are making progress. Likewise, when you successfully enact a pre-decision, it reinforces that you have a goal and that you are taking positive action towards that goal.
(4) Less Cognitive Effort
The pre-decision helps automate action, significantly reducing the amount of cognitive effort and time required to achieve a goal. Consider any number of health related goals that require the reduction or elimination of a specific type of food. It may take quite a bit of research and cognitive effort to decide to no longer eat XYZ, but once the decision is made, it becomes a pre-decision that drastically reduces effort. It helps to automate, “If offered a menu of choices, then reject items that contain XYZ.” This preserves cognitive resources that may have more value being used to help with other aspects of goal pursuit.
(5) Reduction of Specific Biases
Depending on the goal, the pre-decision can allow specific cognitive biases to be reduced or even eliminated. For example, say you invested in Starbucks (SBUX), buying shares of the stock at $60. Having purchased the stock, you might now want to establish an if/then trigger on both sides of the trade. This will help address various related biases such as the disposition effect, sunk cost fallacy, and loss aversion. Using an, “If SBUX hits a price of either $40 or $80, then sell,” does not allow these biases to influence your action in the moment. Note, this pre-decision doesn’t address the biases that may have been involved in buying Starbucks in the first place.
(6) Higher Confidence
When well calibrated, there are a number of reasons that pre-decisions inspire higher confidence. Being well calibrated, means a pre-decision that does not require an action that is far beyond your actual ability level. Most often, the way we determine the extent to which a pre-decision is well calibrated is through practice or the lived experience. The more often we successfully practice or execute a pre-decision, the more confident we become that any future instances will have similar results. At a minimum, pre-decisions provide concrete options that increase the confidence to take a specific action, even if the action might not be ideal. The converse, is the individual that finds themselves lacking in confidence, facing a situation that requires execution of untested options on the fly.
(7) Higher Persistence
A pre-decision doesn’t automatically guarantee success. While the “then” part of the if/then dynamic tells you what action will move you towards the goal, it doesn’t guarantee flawless execution. Regardless, inline with the benefit of increased confidence, pre-decisions help reassure the individual that if they persist the action can work. This is especially true for skill based activities, such as starting a fire without matches, hitting the bullseye, etc. A pre-decision has a degree of credibility over a decision made in the moment, especially when there is evidence that one has either previously achieved a similar result, or that a pre-decision has been known to work in the past. I may have never started a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but given I have seen my nephew successfully execute this skill, my ability to persist if ever faced with such a goal will be much higher.
For all of the benefits of pre-decisions, there are also some drawbacks to consider. Many times these drawbacks are in direct conflict with a perceived benefit, for example higher persistence can also result in fixation or cognitive lockup. The good news, is that many of these pitfalls can be minimized or avoided all together. Oddly enough, in some cases, it is by using an additional pre-decision that establishes if/then conditions to disengage or reevaluate a goal that can help avoid these problems. Some of the pitfalls to consider include:
(1) Increased Bias
Once we commit to a decision or a particular course of action, confirmation bias, the effect of illusory control, and other biases related to self-regulation and confidence begin to reassure us that we made the correct decision. This can result in errors in judgment, favoring evidence in support of a decision and dismissing any evidence that is contrary. While higher confidence can be a benefit, it can also be a pitfall. In a classic study using horse racing, researchers surveyed the confidence of people in line ready to place a bet at the window and then others that had just finished placing their bet. What they found was a significant increase in confidence that the horse they had just bet on was going to win, over those that were getting ready to place a bet. There was no objective reason for this increase, nothing had changed in those 30 seconds regarding racing conditions or the horse. The only change was the bettor committing to a particular course of action. One way to help minimize these types of biases is to be well calibrated, practicing, training, and scaffolding to ensure goal achievement is aligned with actual performance.
Old habits die hard. Sometimes a goal may remain the same, but new information, changing conditions, or new techniques or innovations, make the current if/then protocol less effective, less efficient, and possibly even harmful. Naturally, we are resistant to change as it is viewed as taking away from what has worked and seen as corrupting or removing practices with which we feel comfortable. We can see dogma in almost every field, with the catch phrase being, “That’s how we’ve always done things.”
Ensuring that a pre-decision doesn’t become dogmatic can be difficult, especially for cases where certain protocols have worked effectively for extended periods. In such cases, even in the face of new information or changing circumstances there can be heavy resistance. To help minimize this pitfall, establish a periodic review of if/then protocols to see if they might be out of date. At the group or organizational level there is also the requirement to communicate such changes, allowing new innovations or protocols to be successfully tested and then adopted over time.
This is similar to being dogmatic and is a form of cognitive lockup, where a person gets stuck in an if/then loop. This is often a result of believing there are no alternatives, no other options or tools available to solve the issue. The person keeps trying the if/then protocol, because under pressure they become fixated, either failing to recognize that this situation must be different than what they have encountered in the past, or not being able to change their focus as to explore alternatives.
Reducing cognitive lockup can be accomplished by having additional options available for when a protocol is not working, as well as removing time constraints when possible. Research has also shown that fixation can be reduced by providing a small prompt or clue as to possible alternatives.
(4) Agentic State Decision-Making
This is a where we rationalize that we are not the decision maker, but rather we are carrying out decisions of another agent or higher authority. In some cases, we even make decisions that might go against our personal values. We can see this in the famous Milgram shock experiments, where an authority figure in a lab coat had installed the if/then protocol of, “If the student misses a question, then you shock them.” In psychology this was labeled the authority principle. Numerous experiments replicated Milligram’s findings, demonstrating a very high compliance rate when people felt they were, “Just following orders,” or that they did not have the authority to refuse.
To try and avoid the pitfall of agentic state decision-making, the evidence on goal achievement supports that having higher order goals with an if/then protocol that conflicts with a request by a 3rd party will provide the best chances of success. For example, most doctors observe some form of the hippocratic oath with the higher order goal to do no harm. An if/then protocol of, “If a person is in pain, then I will help them,” might better facilitate disregarding a request by a lab coat wearing 3rd party to deliver a severe electric shock to another person.
The Evidence for Pre-Decisions
The power and pitfalls of pre-decisions are based on decades of research over a wide range of scientific disciplines. For purposes of this article, I will briefly share three studies in support of the overall effectiveness of adding pre-decisions to your decision-making toolbox.
Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at NYU, published an article in 2006 that reviewed 94 studies looking into the effectiveness of goal intentions and implementation intentions (pre-decisions). What Gollwitzer concluded was that holding a strong goal intention, “I want to achieve X!,” does not necessarily guarantee success, because it does not help people to effectively deal with potential barriers they might encounter in the process of striving to achieve the goal they have set. However, when if/then protocols were included, these pre-decisions showed to be beneficial in helping individuals initiate action, kept them from getting distracted, helped them to disengage when a course of action was deemed ineffective, and helped conserve energy for other goals or actions.
In this study, 368 individuals that were participating in orthopedic rehabilitation were split into a control group and treatment groups. In one group the participants not only set goals, but also used pre-decisions as to when and under what conditions they would exercise. The results showed that setting goals alone was not enough to maintain exercise 12 months later. Only in the treatment group that had both set fitness goals and had also established if/then protocols, were a significant number of participants continuing to exercise a year after the study was initiated. The researchers concluded that as certain behaviors become repetitive, such as those required during rehabilitation, only those participants that had used pre-decisions were able to cope and overcome common barriers often associated with persistence and willpower. In contrast to just setting a goal, the pre-decision or action plans provided more detail as to the when, where, and how. (Ziegelman et al. 2007)
Everyday for two weeks, 230 participants were asked to take one multivitamin tablet. There were two things about this experiment that were slightly different. First, the researchers did not have the participants strictly use the if/then format, but rather a more general format that specified when and where they would take the vitamin each day. Second, they also investigated how aligned taking a multivitamin was with the participants stated values and how that might impact results. Some participants saw the taking of a multivitamin as low or no value (self-discordant), while others saw the taking of a multivitamin as having and being aligned with their values (self-concordant). Results showed that while across both groups using pre-decisions was effective in increasing vitamin intake, compliance was particularly strong for the self-concordant group. (Chatzisarantis et al. 2010)
Give it a Try
By this point I hope to have convinced you to give pre-decisions a try. But, how should you go about selecting which of your goals might benefit from pre-decisions, and which goals the use of pre-decisions would just be additional effort with little value in return?
Research on goal achievement has found that initially we prefer to set abstract goals. There is a good reason for this, in that similar to using pre-decisions, setting concrete goals takes time and effort. It is only when we recognizes that we are struggling to achieve the abstract goal, that we begin to develop a more formal goal. Yet, even once a formal goal has been established, we still sometimes struggle. Sometimes, we have set the goal to lose weight or to finish that project, or learn a foreign language, but progress is slow or non-existent. These are the goals I want you to target, the concrete, formal goals that you have established that you are struggling to achieve. If you have a goal and are making solid progress, there is no need to add the extra time and effort of the pre-decision. However, for goals that are giving you trouble, the addition of pre-decisions should help. After all, if you have been struggling to achieve a particular goal, there is little downside to giving pre-decisions a try.
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Ziegelmann, J. P., Luszczynska, A., Lippke, S., & Schwarzer, R. (2007). Are goal intentions or implementation intentions better predictors of health behavior? A longitudinal study in orthopedic rehabilitation. Rehabilitation Psychology, 52(1), 97-102.
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Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making. He writes about the psychology behind problem solving, innovation, motivation and productivity.
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