Vagueness: The Silent Enemy Holding You Back

Article by John Grover on October 15, 2018
John Grover
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Want more success as a leader in your organization? Set more specific intentions. Intentions are a fancy way to describe what is more commonly referred to as, to-do lists and tasks. Let’s start out with some science. Over the last few decades, NYU researcher Peter Gollwitzer has been one of the most important contributors to the field of intention and goal setting.  

Gollwitzer, perhaps best known for his groundbreaking research on the importance of not only setting intentions but also making them very specific. His research would suggest, while we often achieve our vague intentions, specific intentions greatly increase our odds of overall success. 

Vague (weak) intentions  

Let’s say, for example, you rushed to set your personal intentions this morning and came up with this list:  

  • Start on the annual report  
  • Quit working when I get home  
  • Get the organization's website secure  

It’s worth considering how effective these intentions are as I’ve formulated them. They will certainly prove to be more effective than doing nothing. In fact, Gollwitzer’s research discovered that even vague intentions, like these, boost your odds of successfully carrying them out by around 20 to 30 percent. So, if you’re lucky, you might cross another one or two off the list. Not bad! However, setting more specific intentions does something remarkable: it makes our odds of success much higher. 

In one study, Gollwitzer asked participants to set an intention to complete a difficult goal over Christmas break—such as completing a term paper, finding a new apartment, or settling a conflict with their significant other. Some students set a vague intention while others set what Gollwitzer calls an implementation intention. 

As he explains the term, “Make a very detailed plan on how you want to achieve what you want to achieve. What I’m arguing in my research is that goals need plans, ideally, plans that include when, where, and which kind of action to move towards the goal.”  

In other words, if a student’s vague goal was to “find an apartment during Christmas break,” his implementation intention could be, “I will hunt for apartments on Craigslist and email three apartment landlords in the weeks leading up to Christmas.” 

Implementation (strong) intentions  

Comparing Gollwitzer’s two participant groups is where things get interesting. A remarkable 62 percent of students who set a specific implementation intention followed through on their goals. The group that did not set an implementation intention fared much more poorly, following through on their original intention a third as often—a paltry 22 percent of the time.  

This effect, which subsequent studies validated further, was positively staggering. Setting specific intentions can double or triple your odds of success.  

With that in mind, let’s turn our three vague intentions from before, into implementation intentions:  

  • “Start on annual report” becomes “Today I will email the CFO & Executive Assistant (EA) questions to collect data and assign EA with updating last year’s annual report template.  
  • “Quit working when I get home” is reframed as “When I get home, I will put my work phone on airplane mode and my work laptop in another room and stay disconnected for the evening.”  
  • “Get the organization's website secure” becomes “To get the organization’s website secured, I will read up on the current trends in website security and implement two new security measures by the end of the month”.  

Implementation intentions are powerful in much the same way as habits. When you begin a habit, your brain carries out the rest of the sequence largely on autopilot. Once you have a game plan for an implementation intention, when you encounter the environmental cue to initiate it—your lunch break rolls around, you get home after a stressful day at work, or your bedtime alarm goes off—you subconsciously get the ball rolling to accomplish your goals. Your intentions take almost no effort to initiate.  

As Gollwitzer put it, “Action initiation becomes swift, efficient, and does not require conscious intent.” In other words, we begin to act toward our original goal automatically.  

Gollwitzer says that the intentions do not necessarily have to be precise if they are specific enough for a person to understand and identify the situational cues, “We did studies with tennis players, and they made plans on how they want to respond with the problems that might come up in the game. Some of the tennis players were specifying ‘when I get irritated’ or ‘when I get nervous.’ That is not very specific or concrete, but it worked brilliantly because they knew what they meant with ‘nervous.’ Specific means the person can identify the critical situation.”  

Two caveats to setting specific intentions  

First, you must care about your intentions. Implementation intentions don’t work nearly as well for goals that don’t especially matter to you, or that you’ve long abandoned. If you had a goal in the 1990s to amass the world’s largest collection of VHS movies, you will probably be a lot less motivated to achieve that goal today!   

Second, easy-to-accomplish intentions do not have to be as specific. Deciding in advance when you will work on a task is significantly more important for a difficult one, than when your intention is to do something simple.  

If it’s Monday, and your intention is to check email at least once, you do not need to be as definite about when you’ll do so. If you are trying to accomplish something more challenging, like "hire a second event planner,” setting a more specific intention is essential. That vague intention can become more specific: “I will call HR in the morning and have them create a job posting for a second Event Coordinator.”  

In summary, work to-do lists that are vague hold you back from getting things done. They lack the specificity needed to drive action and inspire the execution on your business goals and mission. 

Tags: Productivity

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