We all know that thinking ahead is the only way to succeed in life. But a ton of new research shows that the more you think about future goals and events, the more mistakes you're likely to make. So how can you make forward-looking plans in a way that maximizes your chances of winning out?

We talked to the leading psychologists in the field and reviewed the research, to find out the wrong way — and the right way — to plan ahead.


All images by FuturePresent on Flickr.

According to the latest research, humans have a few problems when we think about our future goals. First of all, we tend to overestimate how much we'll be able to get done in a particular time period. Second, we overstate how much our willpower will help us achieve our goals, because we think our will is all powerful when it comes to the future. And finally, the further we think into the future, the less we think concretely. All three of these things can lead to failure. However, there are some work-arounds that may make you more likely to make realistic plans.

The Trouble With Looking Forward

You absolutely have to think about the future, or you're screwed. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert tells io9, "Anyone who doesn't think that thinking about the future is important and useful should give away their retirement savings and subsist on ice cream." Things like "401k plans and flossing" are proof that thinking about the future is a useful behavior, says Gilbert.


But there are a few problems that can arise when you're thinking of the future:

1) There's the "planning fallacy," which has been written about a lot. As Jennifer Whitson, a professor of Management at University of Texas, Austin explains it, this theory says that "people generally think they can accomplish more in a certain period of time than they actually can." And it's also possible, says Whitson, that the planning fallacy may intensify the further into the future you're planning ahead.


2) But also, some new not-yet-published research by Cornell University's Thomas Gilovich and Erik Helzer shows that the more you think about the future, the less clearly you're likely to be thinking.

In particular, there's the study called "Whatever is willed will be," which shows that people tend to overstate how effective their willpower will be in the future. Helzer and Gilovich did a whopping seven studies to show that people "consider the will to be a more potent determinant of future events than events that happened in the past."


For example, in one study, they asked people about two girls who have a chemistry test coming up. Allie got a B+ on her last test, while Carolyn got a B-. And the participants were told that Allie has an aptitude for chemistry and enjoys her science classes. Meanwhile, they were told that Carolyn "is known among her friends to have a very strong will; when she sets her mind to something she has been able to surpass the goals she sets for herself." If they had to bet $5 on which girl would do better on the next test, they were more likely to bet on the girl with the strong will than the girl with the aptitude for chemistry.

There's plenty more — other studies they did found that people generally just thought willpower was a stronger force in the future than in the past. In other words, even if your willpower totally failed you in the past, it was bound to succeed in the future. Also, in other research, Gilovich and Helzer show that people think of the past as being more rigid and dense than the future, which is more vague and open-ended. They choose darker colors for the past, when doing a color coded timeline, and lighter colors for the future.


As Helzer tells io9:

To me, the crux of the issue is that the will is not actually more potent in the future, it just seems that way. This means that the future will seem more controllable and more amenable to shaping than it actually is (and than it actually was in the past), and my guess is that this gap is going to lead to performance decrements, rather than improvements. If people overestimate the amount of willful control that is present in the future, they're likely to underestimate (and not plan for) other external impediments that could limit their future attempts.


Other research (PDF) shows that people place more value on events in the future than events in the past — even if you don't yet know the outcome of those past events. This could lead people to work harder the more they focus on their future goals — or, says Helzer, it might just make you think you'll work harder than you did in the past.

3) And then finally, there's Construal Level Theory, which shows that the further away something is (either in space, or in time) the more abstract it appears. So if you're thinking about a goal that's a few years ahead, you can easily fall into woolly thinking, instead of focusing on the concrete steps that will allow you to get there, says Whitson.


Adds Cornell University Psychology Professor David Pizarro:

We seem to think of events that are close-in-time very differently than those that are further away. In short, things that are close in time (or physical space) are seen as more concrete, and we tend to focus more on the details rather than on the 'big picture'. Things that are further away are viewed as more abstract, and we focus more on the generalities involved.


When we think about an event in the near future, says Pizarro, we focus on the "how" aspects — like if you're traveling to a conference tomorrow, you think about what you're going to wear, how you're getting to the airport, how early you have to get up, and so on. But if you're thinking about going to a conference next year, you think about the importance of sharing your ideas, how meeting all those people will help your career, and perhaps the idea that travel is good for the soul.

The research on Construal Level Theory shows "that we focus more on our broad goals and priorities when thinking about the future, and that we make better decisions with distance. But we also lose sight of details, and commit ourselves to more than we think we should have," Pizarro tells io9.

The Right Way to Make Plans

Harvard's Gilbert says that there are right and wrong ways to think about the future — and the difference between the two can mean the difference between success and failure in planning. In a nutshell, you have to resist your tendency to think about the future in more abstract and optimistic terms — and maybe keep one eye on the mistakes of the past.


Think about your friends instead of yourself
In another recent research paper, Helzer and David Dunning found that "peer prediction" is more accurate than "self-prediction." In other words, you're likelier to be accurate in estimating how well your friends will succeed than you are at estimating your own performance. So if you want to form a realistic sense of whether you can count on achieving Steps A, B and C in your plan, imagine you're thinking about a friend rather than yourself. Another strategy: Ask yourself, "How would someone else expect me to perform at this?" You can even ask a friend for advice about whether you should expect to be able to reach a particular goal.

These sorts of questions can be important in many cases — like if you're a student trying to decide whether to drop a course before the deadline, or a CEO promising to ship a product by a particular deadline.


Think about the past rather than the future
In that same paper, Helzer and Dunning write:

There are many reasons to use past behavior as an indicator of future action and achievement. The overarching reason is that past behavior is a product of a number of causal variables that sum up to produce it — and that suite of causal variables in the same proportion is likely to be in play for any future behavior in a similar context.


In other words, things that went wrong in the past are likely to go wrong in the future, as well. We just tend to think of the future in more rosy terms. (The whole research paper is well worth reading, especially the discussion section, which is basically a how-to for people trying to make plans they can realistically achieve.)

Focus on concrete details
There's a ton of research on the subject of "Implementation Intentions," which is basically the science of making plans that are focused on contingencies and detailed steps, rather than wishful thinking. Explains Helzer:

I think the concreteness of the plan matters a lot. The idea from the implementation intentions literature is to set up if-thens, so that you have concrete action plans to enact when, as you say, unexpected contingencies creep up. It's also an attempt to take the thinking out of the whole procedure — if you can just "automatize" what you will do in response to distractions or temptations, then you don't even have to rely upon willpower to keep you focused on the goal.


Take advantage of the good parts of abstract thinking
And finally, you can take your tendency to think about the future in abstract terms, and use it to your advantage. Sure, this can lead to wishful thinking — but it can also make you more likely to make worthwhile sacrifices. There's a ton of research by Ohio State University's Kentaro Fujita, showing that the kind of abstract thinking that Construal Level Theory talks about can be helpful — if it leads to a preference for deferred gratification instead of instant gratification.

In other words, you can use this tendency towards more vague thought about the future to help yourself focus on future rewards instead of immediate ones.


Besides the focus on deferred gratification, using abstract thought "leads to decreased preferences for immediate over delayed outcomes, greater physical endurance, stronger intentions to exert self-control, and less positive evaluations of temptations that undermine self-control," Cornell University's Jun Fukukura tells io9. Also, other research shows that the further in the future your goal is, the more likely you are to find reasons to exercise self-control.

So if you focus your future thought on controlling your present behavior, and focus on future needs instead of current wants, you can take your innate tendency to loose thinking about the future and turn it to your advantage, says Fukukura.

Further reading: Myths About the Future That Could Ruin Your Life