Take the case of my shopping trip for my husband's gift for our third anniversary. I set a strict budget for myself and, after some research, identified a few technological gadgets I could buy, knowing my husband would like any one of them. But when I arrived at the store, I felt anxious about which one to choose, and waffled as a salesperson led me through the store. In the end, per the salesperson's recommendation, I bought an item that was not on my list and cost three times more than I had budgeted. Sound familiar?
Whether we are making plans for today, next week or 20 years from now, when the moment of choice arrives, subtle forces can sidetrack us from our carefully laid plans and derail our decisions. Typically, we are unhappy with the outcome of a sidetracked decision and feel regretful that we didn't follow through on our plans.
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Why do we veer off course? I've identified three different sets of forces throwing us off track:
1. Forces from within ourselves. These forces are found in our minds and our hearts, namely, our inaccurate and overly positive beliefs about our abilities and competence (as was true of the product manager I told you about); the strong emotions that lead us astray (as in my shopping story); and an overly narrow focus when we evaluate information that seems relevant to our decisions.
2. Forces from our relationships with others. We are social human beings, but our bonds with others often sidetrack us, thanks in part to three factors: the difficulty of putting ourselves in others' shoes; the distracting similarities we share with others (such as the same name or background); and the comparisons we make between ourselves and others. The behavior of others is surprisingly contagious; we are much more likely to behave dishonestly, for example, when we see peers or colleagues act unethically.
3. Forces from the outside world. Aspects of our environment can sidetrack us from our plans, including irrelevant information and subtle differences in how questions are framed. We tend to believe that significant events and well-rounded arguments affect our thoughts and behavior. Yet factors as innocuous as the amount of lighting in a room, the bitterness of our morning coffee, or the way the furniture is arranged in an office can have a far greater impact on our decisions and behavior than we would care to admit.
As we know too well, not everything goes according to plan. These three sets of forces give us clues about why this is so often the case. Fortunately, they also suggest strategies to help us stay on track and achieve our goals.
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Francesca Gino is an associate professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the author of "Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan."