From forgetting to get a flu shot to failing to enroll in your 401k plan at work, most of us don’t follow through on things we know are important. While overlooking some of these actions may seem harmless in the moment, they can have serious long-term consequences.
“Our intentions are only loosely predictive of our behavior,” says Katy Milkman, author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be and professor of operations, information and decision at The Wharton School. “Forgetting may sound like a flimsy excuse for not getting around to something, but even people who have strong intentions can flake out.”
A good example is voting. Milkman’s colleague Todd Rogers, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, researched voter turnout and learned that 54% of registered voters who told pollsters they intended to vote in the 2008 U.S. presidential primary failed to show up.
“The most common reason people didn’t vote was because they forgot,” says Milkman. “Whether you intend to vote, get a flu shot, or meditate, there is an action/attention gap that’s as wide as the Grand Canyon. And it’s so solvable.”
Think through the details
After deciding you want to do something, you can increase your chances of actually doing it by planning the implementation in detail, says Milkman. For example, if you want to go to the gym, you’ll be more likely to do it if you think about when you’re going to go, how you’ll get there, and what you will be doing right before you go.
“You can say to yourself, ‘On Thursday at 4 p.m., I will go to gym for 30 minutes. I will drive there after work, and this is what I will do when I get there,'” says Milkman. “Thinking through the details will significantly boost the likeliness you’ll follow through.”
Working through the logistics also helps you anticipate potential pitfalls. “If you say you want to go get your COVID vaccine on Tuesday at 2 p.m., you will be more likely to think about the obstacles that could happen and you’ll be more realistic about your ability to take action,” says Milkman. “You’re more likely to follow through once you make a commitment. It feels uncomfortable to go back on it when something is concrete versus a vague intention. If you commit, you’ll be backing out on yourself.”
To increase the number of people getting to the polls, Rogers not only asked people if they were going to vote; he asked when they would vote and how they were going to get there. The simple prompt increased voter turnout by 9%.
You can also set up cues that prompt you to take action. For example, when this happens, I’ll do this. Cues could be anything that triggers your memory, such as an event or a location. For example, getting a raise could be a cue to increase your monthly retirement contribution.
Planning also helps you break down a goal into bite-size chunks, which can help you take the next action. It acts like a pledge to yourself, increasing your commitment to your goal, says Milkman, adding that you need to be choosy.
“If you form too many cue-based plans at once, you may be discouraged and your commitment may dwindle,” she says.
Set up simple reminders
Another way to stop forgetting to do something is to set up reminders. However, your reminder needs to be well timed. In a 2004 study conducted by John Austin, a psychology professor at Western Michigan University, at a casino, valet staff tested how reminders would impact the number of patrons who buckled their seatbelts. The first group got a reminder to buckle up when they handed their ticket to claim their car. The second group was reminded to “buckle up right away” as the valet pulled up and delivered the car to the customer. And the third group didn’t receive any reminder.
There was virtually no difference between the first and third group. About 55% of drivers buckled up. However, 80% of patrons in the second group fastened their seat belt.
“Reminders work far better when we can act on them immediately,” says Milkman. “They can’t bridge time unless they’re delivered in the moment. Technology can help you remember, but only if the reminders are delivered when you need to do the action right now. Reminders that aren’t timely have far smaller benefits.”
The good news is that when it comes to failing to meet the goals you set for yourself, forgetting may be the easiest obstacles to overcome, says Milkman.
“It’s common to make plans and forget to execute on them,” she says. “Pernicious things can have long-term consequences. Timely reminders and cue-based plans can help combat forgetfulness.”