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.

Some of my research examines the role of forces that sidetrack us in the context of morality. In general, once we identify a goal we want to reach, we develop plans that can help us reach that goal. For instance, in the case of our moral goals, we may decide to volunteer regularly or spend some time each week helping others. Yet, even if our moral goals and plans are clear, subtle forces can lead us astray. Here’s an example of how this may happen. Have you or a friend ever bought a knock-off product like pair of faux “designer” sunglasses or a fake watch? If so, would you believe they may have colored the way you viewed the world—not just literally, but more fundamentally? In fact, those cheap sunglasses might have degraded your moral behavior. In a series of experiments, my colleagues Mike Norton, Dan Ariely, and I found that people were more likely to act dishonestly when they were wearing fake products, such as designer copycats. In our studies, participants who thought they were wearing knock-off sunglasses (in fact, the $300 sunglasses were quite real) were more likely to cheat on various problem-solving tasks than participants who were told they were wearing designer lenses. It seems that what we wear influences how we feel (inauthentic) and behave (dishonestly), whether we realize it or not, even when our goal is to act honestly and follow our moral compass.

But getting things done is also a matter of motivation, right? You have to really want to finish what you started.

Yes, motivation is clearly an important ingredient in following through on our plans. But, as it turns out, the same set of forces that derail our decisions can also influence our motivation to get things done. Here’s how. My colleague Scott Wiltermuth and I conducted a series of studies to examine how we could boost individuals’ motivation and effort. In our research, Scott and I varied how we framed potential rewards to study participants so that they would perceive them as belonging to two categories or only one. The categories were pure fiction: in fact, in some of our studies we put potential rewards (which consisted in a variety of useful objects, such as pens or notebooks) in two separate containers rather than in just one. And yet, the completely arbitrary categories we created affected participants’ motivation. In one study, participants were over three times as likely to work on a task for the full amount of time they were given when the potential rewards were divided into two categories.

By creating meaningless categories, we triggered a feeling in participants that they would be missing out if they did not get a reward from the second category available to them. This type of fear seems to drive many of the decisions we make in our personal and professional lives. In the case of my research with Scott, participants felt a sense of fear that they would miss out on some of the available rewards (those belonging to a different category). But this fear can be more general –from the feeling of missing out on special deals to the fear of missing out on an event our friends are attending. It explains why I often spend endless hours waiting in line so that I can be the first to see a highly rated movie or to buy the latest iPhone. And have you ever signed up for store email lists so that you won’t miss out on the latest deals? I certainly have.

What are some of the concrete techniques that you’d suggest people use to not get sidetracked?

In Sidetracked, I discuss nine forces that commonly derail our plans as we are implementing them. For each of these forces, I also discuss a principle that we can all apply to counteract the specific force. For instance, in the example from Defending Your Life that I mentioned earlier, the force that derailed Daniel’s plan was his own emotions. The principle that can help us counteract the effects that emotions have on our decisions is one I call take your emotional temperature. By taking your emotional temperature before making a decision, you can carefully consider your emotional state and ask yourself why you’re feeling this way. This will help you understand whether the emotions you are experiencing were caused by an event unrelated to the decision at hand and, independent of what caused them, you will be able to determine whether they are clouding your judgment.

Another principle I discuss is check your reference points. This principle involves carefully considering the motives that are driving our decisions, and examine whether they are driven by the bitter feelings resulting from where we stand in comparisons to others. It is a principle that helps us counteract another force that often sidetracks us: social comparisons. On a wide range of dimensions, from how trustworthy we are to how good looking others find us to be, we often compare ourselves to our peers to evaluate where we stand. These types of social comparisons can lead to irrational behaviors. For instance, we may accept a job offer paying a lower salary than another that pays more but where other people like us make more money than we would. Or we may vote against hiring a new colleague who excels on dimensions we feel we also excel at (such as leadership) because we find him or her threatening.

The forces that derail people’s decisions are predictable: they systematically sway their actions. Yet, they are also unexpected: people generally do not realize that these forces are at work in their lives. By understanding what gets us off track and by applying the principles I suggest, I think everyone can reach outcomes they’ll be happy with.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.