Take a look at your to-do list. Which task do you expect to complete first? Probably something fairly simple and concrete: “Buy groceries,” “Pay phone bill,” “Clean bathroom.”

Now, which task always gets pushed to the bottom of the list? Learning conversational Spanish would be fun and would make you a stronger job candidate, but as the day goes on, it’s easily put off for another day.

Despite fully intending to, we may have trouble accomplishing tasks—even very important ones—that we fully intend to do. The tasks we define for ourselves can be vague, contain multiple steps or involve obstacles that we just don’t want to think about. These are situations where a technique called simple plan-making may be useful.

Simple plan-making is a strategy to turn our intentions into action. In a study aiming to improve voter turnout at elections, eligible voters received a phone call asking them if they intended to vote. However, some voters were also asked: (1) when they would vote, (2) how they would get there and (3) where they would be beforehand. Adding these three plan-making questions more than doubled the effect on voter turnout. The act of creating a well-constructed plan helps us think through potential obstacles, plan how to overcome them, and remember to execute that plan at the right time.

In the BETA Project, we incorporated plan-making into our design at partner site Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners (Neighborhood Trust) to help clients follow through on their intentions to open and use credit union accounts. Below, we share some elements of our plan-making designs at Neighborhood Trust.

Why Did We Choose to Use Simple Plan-Making at Neighborhood Trust?

Through Neighborhood Trust’s financial education course, a significant number of participating clients open credit union accounts. Our behavioral diagnosis at Neighborhood Trust revealed that some clients open an account, intending to use it; however, they never take that first step towards actually using the account.

Neighborhood Trust appeared to be an especially promising candidate for plan-making tools based on some key characteristics:

  1. The intentions already exist. Making a plan won’t work if we don’t actually want to perform the action. At Neighborhood Trust, many clients open accounts during the class, suggesting that they intend to use those accounts…eventually.
  2. Using an account is complicated. The more vague or complex the steps, the more likely we are to procrastinate. Clients at Neighborhood Trust may not think through the large number of steps required to use their credit union account, from learning how to use a debit card to planning regular trips to the ATM. We saw an opportunity to break out each step to make them more concrete and achievable.
  3. Timing matters. In order to act on an intention, we must remember what we planned to do at the right time. For clients, fitting in a trip to the credit union amid a busy work schedule may be daunting or easy to forget. Creating a plan to go to the credit union could help clients set an explicit intention for completing the action and writing it down could help them to remember their intentions at the right time (“I’ll go to the ATM right before I shop at the grocery store…”).
  4. There are opportunities for commitment and enforcement. There are numerous forces pulling our attention away from our intended goals, and it takes a lot to keep ourselves on track. We all need ways to stay committed to completing our intended goals. Neighborhood Trust’s five-week financial education course presents an opportunity for clients to publicly commit to their plans during class discussion, and report back during the next class.

We often tell ourselves that the more important a task is, the more likely we are to complete it. However, because we assume that our strong intentions will be enough to carry us to completion, we fail to take the necessary steps towards completing our goal. Plan-making can be MOST effective (and usually most needed) when intentions are strong. It helps to remind ourselves of all the things that need to happen in pursuit of our goals and to make sure we take action to complete them all.

The BETA Project Design

We designed a set of plan-making activities for Neighborhood Trust clients to use during the five-week financial education course. The activities included bringing the necessary documents to open an account, locating the nearest ATM and making an initial savings deposit.

To make sure we were helping clients follow through on an existing intention, we instructed clients to choose a plan rather than be assigned a plan.

We made sure plans were actionable by making them concrete and granular.

To discourage clients from giving up on a plan, we allowed for flexible timing: “If I don’t finish it this week, I can work on it again next week.”

Financial Advisors acted to guide and enforce the plan-making activities by helping clients select and create a plan at the end of each class and checking in on their progress during the next class.

Make Your Next Plan

Now look at your to-do list again. Is there anything on that list that needs to be rewritten as a plan?
When will you read our next blog post? Where will you be? What will you be doing immediately beforehand? Make a plan—and stick to it.

Next BETA Project Post: Testing, Testing

After we define problems, diagnose behaviors and design solutions, we test those solutions. Our next post on the BETA Project will discuss our testing methodology. This post and other helpful insights from the BETA Project are available on CFED’s Behavioral Economics blog and BETA Project website.