There is an area of self-help devoted to advice on completing tasks, and the focus is generally on the positive: How to get organized, how to choose good goals, how to stay motivated, etc. Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, also wants to help you achieve your goals, but she begins with the negative. What are the psychological forces that send people off the rails? In Sidetracked, she argues that to succeed we first need to know our enemy, the often-unconscious factors that stop us from getting things done. Then we can fight back. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Why did you write this book?
Many of the ideas I study and write about are motivated by my personal experience and by what surrounds me –interesting patterns of behavior that often, at first glance, make little sense. Sidetracked focuses on situations where we set out to accomplish specific goals but ended up reaching different outcomes –outcomes we often regret. Think of a time when you had a clear plan of action—a new career path, a diet you intended to follow, an exciting regular workout plan, a new saving plan for retirement, a new hire in your team, or a new car you were planning to buy after much research and deliberation. What happened when it came time to make decisions in pursuit of your goal? You may have found yourself following a course of action that took you completely off track. I certainly found myself in this type of situations many times in the past. And when talking to friends and colleagues, I discovered that they shared similar experiences where they got sidetracked as they were implementing their well thought-out plans.
In Sidetracked, I explain how even simple and seemingly irrelevant factors have profound consequences on our decisions and behavior, diverting us from our original plans. Most of us care a good deal about being consistent—we care about following through on our goals and wishes. And we also aim to behave in ways that are consistent with our self-image as capable, competent, and honest individuals. But often, without our knowledge, subtle influences—often unexpected—steer us away from what we initially planned or wanted. As a result, our decisions fail to align with our best intentions.
I wrote Sidetracked to discuss the main set of forces that prevent us from following through on our plans, and to identify a set of principles we can apply to stay on track going forward. My book describes theses forces using examples and case studies from personal and professional domains, as well as research that I conducted with amazing colleagues over the last ten years.
You say that very small things can throw people off their plans. Can you give some examples of what you mean by this?
Have you ever watched Albert Brooks’s 1991 movie, Defending Your Life? There is a funny scene where Brooks’s character, Daniel Miller, is preparing for an upcoming negotiation with his boss for a higher salary. His goal is to accept offers above $65,000, but nothing less. So, he develops a plan on how to best negotiate and then asks his wife to help him prepare for the negotiation by trying it out and acting as his boss. In the practice session with his wife, Daniel is very firm –he is confident and assertive, exactly as he had planned. His wife makes a series of offers, but Daniel rejects all of them since they are below $65,000. In the end, Daniel is able to stick to the plan and receives the offer he wanted. The next scene in the movie shows the real negotiation with his boss, which occurred the next day. Daniel’s boss puts a first offer on the table: a salary of $49,000. Before the boss even finishes the sentence where he made the offer, Daniel accepts it. Negotiating with his boss made him anxious, something he failed to anticipate. Such anxiety overwhelmed him and derailed his plan to be firm and accepting nothing less than $65,000. The emotions we experience while implementing our plans can sidetrack us.