Sidetracked: Why Can’t We Stick to the Plan?

In her new book, Sidetracked, behavioral scientist and professor Francesca Gino explores the unexpected forces that often keep people from following through with their plans, both professional and personal.

"The best-laid schemes of mice and men go often awry." - Robert Burns, 1785

An entrepreneur starts a company with plans to go public, but ultimately accepts a low-ball acquisition offer from a competitor. A newlywed husband plans to spend 10 minutes in Whole Foods picking up the ingredients for a romantic dinner, but ends up spending an hour comparison shopping for organic dog food and craft beer. A college student resolves to spend every Wednesday evening studying in the library, only to spend most of that time watching reality TV. So what happened?

In her new book, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan , behavioral scientist and HBS Associate Professor Francesca Gino explores the unexpected forces that often keep people from following through with their plans. The book, based on years of colorful experimental research, shows how we can be disastrously distracted by seemingly innocuous factors — and how distractions can be avoided.

This excerpt from the book's introduction describes how three different sets of forces sidetracked Gino's husband during a recent trip to Dubai. - Carmen Nobel

Introduction: What Gets Us Off Track

From Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan

By Francesca Gino

Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the PlanOn a sunny day a few years ago, my husband, Greg, and I were wandering the streets of the Gold Souk in the old part of Dubai. Both my sister, who was living in Dubai with her family, and my travel guide had described the souk — a marketplace where you can buy products ranging from fresh food and spices to handicrafts and even gold — as a "must-see." Our plan for the afternoon was clear: Greg and I wanted to have an enjoyable day and buy something authentic that would help us remember the experience vividly once we were back home.

As we went from one tiny, packed store to the next, we noticed that amid the traditional shops lining the souk's enchanted streets were other shops filled with fake designer handbags and knockoff designer clothing. Vendors ran after us, hawking "Nike" shoes, "Versace" T-shirts, "Louis Vuitton" bags, "Prada" wallets, and "Ray-Ban" sunglasses — all of them at bargain prices, and all of them closely resembling the authentic products we were familiar with from home.

One vendor was particularly persistent. He convinced Greg to follow him to the back of his store, where the two spent almost an hour haggling over "Rolex" and "Panerai" watches — identical copies of the real thing. Greg thought a fancy watch would make him look and feel good, and he doubted any of his friends or col¬leagues would be able to tell the difference.

After quite a bit of negotiating, Greg was ready to make a purchase: a copy of a Panerai Luminor Power Reserve men's watch, which typically sells for about $7,000 in the United States. Greg bought his perfect (in his mind) replica for just over $100.

He was thrilled, but his euphoria over getting such a good deal was short-lived. By the time we got back to our car, Greg said he couldn't help but feel a bit fake while wearing the watch. Ironi¬cally, this was exactly the opposite of our initial plan: having an authentic experience at the souk.

The decisions that we expect we will make based on our finely developed plans are often different from how we actually behave. We get sidetracked.

We set a new career path, we choose a diet to follow, we make plans to save for retirement, we set a new direction for the management team, or we promise to carefully research our next big purchase. And yet, like Greg, you may have found yourself following a course of action that took you completely off track — putting off your job search, sabotaging your diet, spending too much on trivial items, and so on. In the end, your outcome bore very little resemblance to your initial goal. Such results can be discouraging, demoralizing, and baffling.

We have a rose-colored view of who we are and what we do, and we aim to behave in ways that are consistent with our self-image as capable, competent, helpful, and honest individuals. We care about following through on our goals and wishes. And yet, even when we have spent time developing our plans and are fully committed to our best intentions, our decisions often veer off course in unexpected ways.

Greg set off to choose a souvenir that would enhance our authentic experience abroad, but left the souk feeling just the opposite — inauthentic and false. And Greg is not alone. I have observed experienced managers plan carefully for their negotiations but end up with very different deals than those they had planned because they were caught up "in the heat of the moment." I've seen friends make plans to improve their relationships but fail to follow them due to their inability to put themselves in their partners' shoes. I have watched thoughtful managers planning new incentive schemes to motivate their employees, only to find the employees focused more on cheating the system than on working harder. And I have also noted similar inconsistencies in my own behavior. Why do our plans so often go astray, and how can we keep on track?

Over the last 10 years, I embarked on a number of research projects that focused on answering just those questions. In Side¬tracked, I'll share my findings.

Three different sets of forces influence our decisions in ways we commonly fail to anticipate: (1) forces from within ourselves, (2) forces from our relationships with others, and (3) forces from the outside world. Throughout Sidetracked, I will describe the results of various studies examining the power of these forces and how they operate. I will suggest that we can make more successful decisions by understanding these forces and that we can learn to account for them as we set goals or clarify plans of action. I will conclude each chapter by describing one principle for you to consider to avoid getting sidetracked in the future.

Forces from within are factors that reside in both our minds and our hearts, and exist because of the very nature of being human. We will explore the accuracy (or lack thereof) of our beliefs about our abilities and competence (chapter 1), the effects of our emotions on unrelated decisions (chapter 2), and the consequences of having an (overly) narrow focus when evaluating information and making decisions (chapter 3).

Forces from our relationships are factors that characterize our relationships and interactions with others. We are social human beings, but our bonds with others often derail our plans. In the second part of the book, we will examine how this happens. I will discuss the difficulty of putting ourselves in others' shoes (chapter 4), how sharing even superficial features with others (such as having the same first name) colors our viewpoint and decisions (chapter 5), and how we are affected by comparing ourselves to others (chapter 6).

Finally, forces from the outside are factors that characterize the context in which we operate and make decisions. We will explore the effects of irrelevant information on our decisions (chapter 7), examine why subtle differences in the way a question is framed lead to different solutions (chapter 8), and discuss how the structure of our environment can cause us to veer off track (chapter 9).

To a certain extent, all these forces were at play when Greg was deciding what to buy at the souk. Forces from within made him concentrate on how wearing a Panerai (albeit a fake) would make him feel, a prediction that turned out to be shortsighted and inaccurate. Forces from his relationships made him focus on the fact that he would look good relative to others, but at a much cheaper price; this focus may have clouded his understanding of the power of wearing counterfeits. And forces from the outside — the heady atmosphere of the souk — may have had an impact as well.

    • Anonymous
    Love the Story about the Souk , thats precipitously what happens in those type of places !!

    Have added this to my reading list.
    • diane b
    there's a big difference between self sabotage and being spontaneous.
    • Anonymous
    An excellent piece! But Robert Burns wrote about best-laid schemes that "gang aft agley" -- as a scholar, Prof. Gino should quote accurately, then translate as need be
    • Carmen Nobel
    • Senior Editor, HBS Working Knowledge
    To commenter #3: Citing Burns without noting the translation from the Scots was my fault/choice, not Professor Gino's. (I wrote the introduction to the excerpt.) But yes, indeed:

    The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
    Gang aft agley,
    An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
    For promis'd joy!
    • Anonymous
    I was answering important emails and got sidetracked by this article.
    You had to see this coming.
    • Raji Gogulapati
    This topic is about following with plans and goals of long term being authentic to oneself and not be swayed by winds of change - big and small.

    How about being flexible by being aware of change within and without?

    What is more feasible and recommended for today's youth who face change as a routine?
    • Linda Dowd
    • Hit the Job Running
    This is a topic that everyone I know can relate to. Awareness is such an important step in understanding and controlling our behavior. I will definitely add this to my reading list.

    Linda Dowd
    Hit the Job Running
    • Payam
    • Project Manager, Mobinnet
    But won't this affect the possible innovation you may have when you change the initial plan for a possible better one?
    • Janice Nazarewicz
    • Teacher, Worcester Public Schools
    I'm glad that I was side-tracked by my email from HBS. When I was a Business Education Instructor at one of the Worcester High Schools, I often referred "Working Knowledge" to intoduce a topic for my students to contemplate. I'm still teach for WPS, but in a different capacity. That being said, I will be reading this book, because it sounds like a good one.
    • Kapil Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is indeed a tendency which involves most of us from time to time. It happens at work and also when engaged in anything not very serious. You go to a mall to buy as per a list in hand. You have planned to stick to necessities only. But you find some products which attract due to certain factors. You stop to observe and spend time deciding whether to purchase...more often, you are tempted to purchase realizing later - to your surprise - that this was done unnecessarily being a waste of time, energy and money. There are many such situations when we behave the way we needn't.
    Francesca has opened our eyes and mind to such reality. How to tame our faculties to avoid diversions has to be a serious exercise of mind control, something requiring strong will-power. Somewhat uneasy !
    • Bill Flynn
    • CEO, Paeon Partners
    Interesting how you manage to break all these decisions down into the little steps involved. I completely agree with your assessment. What I have found in my coaching practice is the importance of recognizing my feelings at all times. Yes, I know that's likely impossible, but if I'm looking at a pattern that isn't working for me (or for a client) the best short cut is to find out what the fear is about. You describe exactly what Greg's fear was: fear of not being good enough. While it's pretty clear you don't share that opinion, if he's anything like me, the solution is in that area.
    • Terri Dull
    • Bookkeeper/receptionist/volunteer at church, Babb Accounting/Dogwood church
    Huh, I thought that was only me doing this! Here there's a book about it.
    I am a part-time worker, and I've recently backed off to working 1 job, 2 days a week for a time. For now, I see that God led me to do this because my husband had a few projects he needs help with &, also, because I've begun an ESL ministry at my church.
    I've been trying to plan, learn, finish reading the teaching manual & prepare flyers & lesson plans for the ESL ministry to begin in early April, but I find there are so many other activities, events, & ideas that come in my head in ways to minister to others I see in need, that it's really been hard to stay focused on the task of getting as much as possible accomplished to prepare for this new ministry! Once the ministry starts & will need weekly prep. time, I know I won't have much time to learn & by then, I should have read the complete teacher's manual.
    I see it's much easier to do things on inpulse and get side-tracked than it is to stay on-task w/a huge project!
    This sounds like a good book to speak to this situation.