Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 02, 2019

People Who are More Planful Are More Successful at Achieving their Fitness Goals

by Rita M. Ludwig
Photo of Family With Grandparents Enjoying Thanksgiving Meal At Table

The approaching holiday season means many of the same things to many people: family, friends, perhaps a slight bit of stress, and—above all­ else—food. Lots of it. Endless courses of traditional and sentimental meals cooked with care to delicious perfection and shared with loved ones. After multiple helpings and naps, bellies uncomfortably full yet still managing to accommodate even more, many people find themselves sharing the same thought: “I need to hit the gym on Monday.” This thought, and others like it, is an everyday example of how we set plans to reach our goals – in this case, going to the gym to offset a bout of excessive eating.

Less common is the actual follow-through of going to the gym, be it after the holidays or throughout the rest of the year. But some people do manage to make consistent progress towards achieving their fitness goals. Is there a shared psychology among these achievers? This is the question that I attempted to answer in a recent study conducted with my colleagues at the University of Oregon, Sanjay Srivastava and Elliot T. Berkman. We found evidence suggesting that the answer is “yes.” Specifically,  these people are high in a characteristic we call planfulness.

Planfulness describes how carefully people think about their goals. It is based on evidence from psychology experiments showing that particular ways of thinking about goals increase the likelihood of achieving them. For example, social psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen at New York University has demonstrated the usefulness of a simple thought exercise in which you think about how good it will feel once you achieve your desired goal as you visualize how distant from that goal you currently are. The contrast between the two is thought to give a motivating boost to pursue your goal while also providing a clear target to direct that energy toward.

Although most studies on this technique instruct people to use this thought exercise, my colleagues and I were curious whether this and similar ways of thinking come naturally to people who frequently achieve their goals. We created the Planfulness Scale to measure how people think about their goals and plan to achieve them. People who are high in planfulness regularly put effort into developing strategies to reach their goals and link their daily behavior to their long-term success at reaching that goal. On the other hand, people who are low on planfulness do not make specific game plans for achieving their goals and can lose sight of how to work towards success in the course of their everyday life.

So, what is the connection between planfulness and going to the gym? In our most recent study, we had 280 people who reported having physical activity goals complete the Planfulness Scale. We then observed their behavior over the course of ten weeks, recording the number of times that they checked in to a local gym. Importantly, this procedure allowed us to study planfulness as our participants naturally went about their lives and pursued their goals.

What we found was that people who scored higher on the Planfulness Scale went to the gym more frequently over the course of the ten weeks than those who were less planful. In fact, each 1-point increase in the planfulness score was associated with 8.5 more trips to the gym on average. This connection between planfulness and exercising was observed regardless of the type of exercise goal that participants were pursuing. Whether they were trying to increase muscle mass, run faster, or lose weight, participants who were more planful were in the gym more often, working toward their goals. The way people think about their goals seems to translate to their behavioral follow-through.

Based on the Planfulness Scale, here are some of the ways that highly planful people think about their goals:

  1. They prioritize future rewards over present ones, especially when the two conflict (for example, choosing to cook a healthy dinner versus ordering takeout).
  2. They recognize that they can recover from setbacks and do not become demotivated when setbacks occur (so a cheat meal doesn’t become a cheat week).
  3. They pay attention to which tricks and tips work best for their goal planning and those that aren’t as effective (some people hate using calendars but won’t work out without a buddy).
  4. They see how today’s actions lead to tomorrow’s successes (lacing up those sneakers anyway on a day you’re just not feeling it still means you’ll be getting in good shape for that marathon).

Based on the design of this research, we cannot be certain that planful thinking causes improvements in sticking to fitness goals. However, if you find yourself indulging this holiday season, consider taking the time to think more carefully about your fitness goals may help you get back to the gym on Monday.

For Further Reading

Ludwig, R. M., Srivastava, S., & Berkman, E. T. (2018). Planfulness: A process-focused construct of individual differences in goal achievement. Collabra: Psychology4(1).

Ludwig, R. M., Srivastava, S., & Berkman, E. T. (2019). Predicting Exercise With a Personality Facet: Planfulness and Goal Achievement. Psychological science30(10), 1510-1521.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting of future and reality. Journal of Personnel Psychology.


Rita M. Ludwig is a doctoral student in the psychology department at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on developing interventions to help people reach their goals.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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