To Reach Goals, Make a Plan

Marisa T. Cohen PhD, LMFT

Although we may set goals such as learning a new language, finishing work projects on time, and organizing the closets, we don’t always complete them. While the difficulty of the goal and the motivation we have for embarking on our goal-achieving journey may influence our ability to reach what we laid out, having a plan is one of the easiest ways to set ourselves up for success.

Having a plan to achieve our goals can assist us in outlining the steps necessary to complete the required tasks, deal with obstacles that arise along the way, and enable us to determine the time it will take to reach each of the necessary steps. Planning enables us to frame our future by highlighting the way in which we can achieve the desired outcome.

Let’s relate this to a relationship goal. Sherry and Dan have set the goal of spending more quality time together during the week. Great at setting specific and realistic goals, they agreed that quality time would involve one hour in which they either engage in a joint activity or discuss something of importance that occurred during the day. They even went as far as noting that they should set aside this hour at least four times a week for the goal to be successfully achieved.

While they really thought about the goal, Sherry and Dan didn’t create a plan for achieving it. They figured it was self-explanatory, so they left the goal as is and resumed their routines. Dan got busy at work and started to come home late. The goal slipped his mind, and Sherry didn’t want to bother him. One week became two, and soon the goal was out of sight, out of mind. Sherry, feeling a bit disconnected from Dan, decided that they would start one evening by working on a scrapbook of their favorite pictures. Later that evening, she began to gather the materials needed and realized that she didn’t have the photo pockets she wanted. She abandoned the activity entirely, pushing it off until another day. Now they were at three weeks with no real progress.

In a study conducted by Achtziger, Gollwitzer, and Sheera (2008) examining peoples’ intentions to diet, they found that creating if–then plans increased the goal attainment rate. This is because plans helped people start advancing toward their goals and prevented them from straying off course.

If we rewind the situation to the original goal-setting meeting, Sherry and Dan can decide on a list of activities they can do together and develop a rough timeline. Perhaps on week 1, they begin with the photo scrapbook; on week 2, they try a meal prep dinner kit; on week 3, they take a language course together, etc. They then decide that each Sunday morning they will be sure to create a clear plan to purchase any supplies needed for the week. This way, when they sit down to engage in the activity, they already know that they have everything. Additionally, they set an alert on their phones for Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays to prompt them to wrap up their work or other engagements approximately one hour before they planned to spend time together. They also came up with a set of guidelines, which involve silencing their phones and turning off the TV, so that they know that there will be no outside distractions.

Creating the plan enables them to get on the same page with what the process for achieving more quality time will look like. It also helps them to anticipate any obstacles that may get in their way.


Achtziger, A., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Implementation intentions and shielding goal striving from unwanted thoughts and feelings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(3), 381–393.

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