Does Your Agenda Scare You?

Özge Üstündağ

Plan Better

When the ghost of a paper you forgot to submit comes a-haunting and you notice that your inner Frankenstein is coming alive, it is time to re-prioritize.

Being a full-time student is no small feat! College students often find themselves juggling multiple roles. They constantly switch one hat for another as future leaders, researchers, teachers, friends, parents, sisters, brothers and more. Managing different roles can become stressful and that is exactly why it is beneficial to have potent organizational skills up your sleeve.

Imagine, elaborate and plan

Recent empirical studies point towards a practical approach to time management: Imagine, elaborate and plan (scientifically defined as mental contrasting and implementation intentions).

Mental contrasting and implementation intentions (MCII) are both self-regulation strategies that aid in pursuing meaningful goals. Self-regulation strategies are, in general, concerned with how people go about achieving their goals. MCII offers a new way to think about goals and potential obstacles that may be in the way of achieving them.

Psychology Professor Gabriele Oettingen (New York University) and colleagues break down mental contrasting as such: “In mental contrasting, individuals first positively fantasize about a wished-for future (e.g., excel in the upcoming exam) and then imagine the present reality that holds them back from realizing the envisioned future (e.g., my messy desk).”

Mentally contrasting the goal with the present reality brings to light the actions that need to be taken to move closer to the goal in mind. However, mentally associating a desired goal with the present reality is not enough on its own to motivate action. We also need a plan for what to do when we are faced with obstacles. Implementation intentions which are action plans in the form of if-then statements provide a simple way to plan for those obstacles.

Try it for yourself!

MCII has been applied to various domains including academics. This strategy has helped students schedule more hours on a 7-day calendar in the face of pressing academic concerns. Moreover, MCII has helped low-income women who were enrolled in a 5-month vocational school attend school more regularly even with 2 kids and working 20 hours a week (See Oettingen, 2015).

Intrigued? Follow the steps below to try this strategy for yourself!

1. Choose a school-related concern that you would like to solve in the week ahead.

Ex: finish a writing project

  1. 2. Write down the most positive aspect of solving this concern/problem. You should think about this very carefully and imagine it as vividly as possible.

Ex: passing the class, enriching my knowledge

  1. 3. Name the most important obstacle and elaborate on it in as much detail as possible.

Ex: distracted by text messages from friend

  1. 4. Name an action that you can take to overcome the obstacle

Ex: put phone on do not disturb mode

  1. 5. Plan and make the action specific: add the time and place where obstacle might appear and write the plan in an if-then format. Ex: If (obstacle), then (behavior)

Ex: If I receive a text from my friend while working on my writing project at home, then I will put my phone on do not disturb mode and continue working.

  1. 6. Repeat the plan in your mind’s eye as vividly as possible.


“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” Pablo Picasso


  • 1. Oettingen, G., Kappes, B. H., Guttenberg, B. K., & Gollwitzer, M. P. (2015). Self-regulation of time management: Mental contrasting with implementation intentions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 218 – 229. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2090
  • 2. Houssais, S., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2013). Using mental contrasting with implementation intentions to self-regulate insecurity-based behaviors in relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 37(2), 224-233. DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9307-4