NYU Researcher Explains How To Use Value-Oriented Planning For Setting Goals

Researcher Anne Holding reveals how to set goals effectively with autonomous 'if-then' planning.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 04, 2024

A new study published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences investigates the impact of pursuing goals you genuinely enjoy ("autonomous motivation") alongside the implementation of specific plans ("if-then plans") in facilitating goal achievement.

I recently spoke to lead author Anne Holding of the Department of Psychology at New York University to discuss autonomous motivation in formulating plans and its relation with subsequent execution, progress towards goals, and overcoming challenges.

How do you describe autonomous and controlled motivations and their relationship with action crises?

We use the term motivation to describe the quality of motivation and why someone is pursuing a goal. Autonomous motivation is when someone does something because they "want to"—pursuing the goal feels important, meaningful, interesting, or enjoyable to them or resonates with their deeply held values.

Autonomous motivation is contrasted with controlled motivation. Controlled motivation is when someone is doing something because they feel like they "have to"—either facing external pressures, like rewards or punishments, or internal pressures, like feelings of guilt and shame for not doing something.

The same goal—for example, to "learn French"—could be pursued for more autonomous or controlled reasons. One person may feel like they want to learn French because they find the language beautiful and are curious about the culture (autonomous motivation). Another person may feel pressure to learn the language from their romantic partner (controlled motivation).

Conducting large longitudinal goal studies where we track multiple goals that people are pursuing over the course of several months or a year, we found that when individuals are pursuing their goals for more autonomous reasons, they tend to experience more goal progress and fewer action crises (i.e. internal conflicts about whether to persist or disengage) than when they have less autonomous reasons.

This is probably because autonomous goals are more reflective of people's values and interests, which makes them feel more energized to pursue, and they are less susceptible to temptations and distractions. By contrast, controlled goals tend to result in greater action crises and can take a toll on people's mental and physical health over time.

For example, we've shown that controlled goal pursuit and the associated action crises are related to increased depression symptoms and more significant chronic stress hormone elevations.

Individuals may be quicker to encounter action crises and feel conflicted about their controlled goals because these goals felt imposed and were never fully integrated to begin with.

What are autonomous "if-then" plans, and how do they enhance the goal outcomes?

"If-then" plans are simple plans people can make that spell out details about when, where, and how to pursue their goals. By identifying potential challenges or obstacles to goal pursuit in advance, if-then planning offers individuals the opportunity to craft a specific response that is designed to bypass or overcome any anticipated obstacles.

For example, suppose someone has a goal to "spend less money," and they notice that they tend to go shopping on Friday afternoons. A reasonable if-then plan might be, "If it's Friday afternoon, then I will head straight to the gym and work out."

Executing this if-then plan would help the person avoid a situation (going shopping) that is an obstacle to their goal (spending less money). Research shows that having if-then plans tends to improve goal outcomes.

An autonomous if-then plan is one that resonates with your interests, preferences, and values. Continuing with the example above, if the person did not like going to the gym, an if-then plan involving the gym would be unlikely to promote lasting behavior change.

Instead, that person might see greater goal progress if they crafted an if-then plan that fits their personality and interests better. For example, if the person enjoys social gatherings, a more autonomous plan might involve meeting up with friends or family on Friday afternoons.

Our research showed that those who felt more autonomous about their if-then plans and enacted these if-then plans more frequently saw the greatest boost in goal progress and reduction in action crises compared to those who felt less autonomous about their plans and enacted them less frequently.

How can individuals identify their autonomous goals and avoid decisional conflict?

The best way to avoid decisional conflicts is by identifying autonomous goals to begin with. This can be challenging because it involves blocking out all the outside noise and taking a deep look inward—reflecting on your most important values and interests.

Ask yourself what you really want and why it matters to you. Thinking about whether pursuing a goal will feel energizing or draining will move you closer to the things in life that matter most to you or farther away from them. Ideally, you can identify goals that seem meaningful and important, align with your values and interests, and move you closer toward the things that matter most.

When you pursue these kinds of autonomous goals, our research suggests you are less likely to encounter decisional conflicts about whether to persist or disengage (i.e., action crises) when encountering setbacks or difficulties.

That being said, decisional conflicts in goal pursuit can also serve an important function. If you notice yourself feeling conflicted about a goal often, maybe it is time to take a step back. Reflect on your reasons for wanting the goal in the first place, as well as your reasons for wanting to abandon the goal.

Sometimes, experiencing these decisional conflicts can help you double down on your commitment to the goal, or conversely, it can help you make the wise decision to let go of a goal that wasn't the right fit.

How can one reduce the time between setting goals and acting on them?

Depending on how abstract the goal is, it could take weeks, months, even years to accomplish. But there are likely small steps you can take, even today, that will move you closer to reaching the goal.

Breaking down the goal into smaller steps ("chunking") and getting started with some of the smaller, manageable steps can help you to build momentum, feel energized, and experience a boost of self-efficacy.

If-then planning is also a great strategy to get started on goals. For example, suppose you have a goal to improve your fitness. In that case, it may help to think about times in your week you are most likely to exercise, the type of exercise you are most likely to enjoy consistently, and the factors that are likely going to promote or derail your goal pursuit.

Crafting if-then plans describing the situations and your responses will provide a great roadmap and take the guesswork out of how to reach your goal every week.

How can people use autonomous if-then plans when facing obstacles in daily routines?

If-then plans are designed to overcome obstacles, so if you are facing obstacles when using if-then plans, maybe it is time to go back to the drawing board.

Think about the kinds of obstacles you are encountering—maybe you planned for a different kind of obstacle, and you're noticing something new and unexpected is getting in the way.

Next, think about your response—is it effective for overcoming the obstacle? Does the response align well with your interests and values?

Sometimes, it can take some trial and error to find a solution that will work. Sometimes, you may need to find a new response because you are getting bored, you want to challenge yourself, or you want to switch things up.

Being consistent is great for building habits, but being autonomous is all about listening to yourself and finding strategies that work for you. Sometimes, that means making adjustments to the plan or even stepping back from the goal altogether if it is no longer serving you well.

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