Self-help books about developing better habits are all the rage. Some of the best ones are Atomic Habits by James Clear, How to Change by Katie Milkman and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. These books are chock full of great advice about how to develop better habits in order to meet your goals.
A recent paper by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis highlights a simple way to achieve a goal: create a rigid plan for achieving it.
Rigid vs. Flexible Plans
When setting a goal, there are broadly two ways to plan to achieve it: make a flexible plan or a rigid one. For example, if your goal is to get into better shape, a rigid vs. flexible plan might be:
- Rigid Plan: Go to the 6:30 am boot camp class on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
- Flexible Plan: Go to the gym 3 – 5 times a week.
Or maybe your goal is to lose some weight. Here’s what these different plans might look like:
- Rigid Plan: Weigh every morning. Track all food intake with an app and limit calories to 1800 per day with a cheat day on Saturday of 2500 calories.
- Flexible Plan: Eat healthier by consuming more fruits and vegetables and drinking less alcohol.
The Wash U researchers note that substantial prior research has established that a rigid plan is way more effective than a flexible one for goal achievement. Which makes sense. Rigid plans provide a concrete roadmap to success while flexible plans just give a general direction.
So Why Don’t We Adopt Rigid Plans?
What the Wash U paper sought to address is given the greater effectiveness of rigid plans, why don’t more people do them? To answer this, ponder these two scenarios:
1. A friend says they want to lose weight but have had problems making it happen and asks you for your advice. How likely are you to suggest that they adopt a rigid plan like the one outlined above?
2. Now consider yourself. Imagine that you have the same goal of losing a few LBs. How does the idea of adopting a rigid plan sound to you?
The Wash U paper found that people generally recognize that rigid plans are more effective but think that adopting one would be less pleasant than a flexible one. As such, people are likely to recommend a rigid plan for others but be reticent to adopt one for themselves.
Here’s a chart from the paper showing the percentage of time study participants chose a flexible plan for themselves vs. recommended it for others:
The chart is the inverse of choosing a rigid plan — as you can see, participants were much more likely to suggest a rigid plan to others than for themselves.
Why is this the case? From the research paper:
“There is a clash between what people know will be effective and what feels appealing. When thinking about themselves, what they want to do—what feels good—is to give themselves flexibility, so they are not hemmed in by the constraints they set and can make changes if they want to. But when people think about others, those concerns are put aside, and they opt for the path that logically seems more likely to keep someone on track to achieving their goal.”
The researchers refer to choosing a flexible plan as “following your heart” while choosing a rigid plan for yourself or others as “following your head.”
While the paper proposes a few different strategies to get ourselves to choose rigid plans in our goal pursuits, they basically boil down to stopping and asking yourself what course of action you’d recommend to a friend. In other words, set plans with your head instead of with your heart.
Here are some other IFODs that hit on developing effective habits: