Feeling derailed? 3 tips for staying on track

It’s something we hear all the time: You want to do good, but even your best intentions go awry. So what can you do about it? We asked Francesca Gino, a professor of decision-making and negotiation at Harvard Business School and author of the new book Sidetracked, for some advice.

FGino Photo for Book

Francesca Gino. Photo credit
Rosalind Hobley.

The three forces that throw us off track

Sidetracked addresses a problem most all of us can relate to: How is it that we spend so much time making plans and charting goals, then find ourselves far afield from them later, wondering where we went astray?

“Both in my own experience and in talking with others, one consistent surprise is that we think big things are going to move us and get in the way, but the reality is that very small and seemingly irrelevant forces have a huge effect on our decisions,” Gino says.

In many cases, the forces guiding us aren’t obvious. So the first step in getting set straight again? Awareness.

Forces within ourselves. Most of us harbor an overly positive view of ourselves, and Gino’s research concludes that our intentions are often as valuable to us as our actions. “For example,” she says, “I tell you I’m coming with you on Saturday to pick up trash in the park. If it rains and I call you to postpone, I’ll still feel as good about myself as if I’d actually done it, regardless of whether or not I ever do reschedule.”

Forces stemming from relationships. We are of course influenced by the people we know, but also by people we’ve never met. In a UCLA study mentioned in Sidetracked, it was found that hotels who advertise to their guests the environmentally-friendly option of reusing their towels during their stay get many more participants when they include a statistic about the large percentage of previous guests that have done so. Whether we are conscious of it or not, most of us feel drawn to join a crowd, rather than blaze new trails of our own.

Forces coming from outside. In a study involving car insurance, policy buyers were required to report the mileage on their cars’ odometers to determine their premiums: the less miles driven, the lower the cost. Participants were significantly more truthful when the form they filled out had them sign their name and an affirmation of honesty first and then give the mileage number—rather than the reverse. In this case, a very subtle, simple visual change was the sidetracking culprit.

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“We are all vulnerable to these forces, so let’s recognize them for what they are and take steps to minimize their impact,” says Gino. Here are her top three tips:

  1. Check your perspective. “It’s good to feel confident, but also important to realize when we’re giving ourselves too much credit,” Gino says. “To avoid getting sidetracked, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we do, and give ourselves credit for following through, not just for having good intentions.” Her advice is to stop sometimes and ask: Am I being egocentric? Am I discounting the advice or experience of others because I have tunnel vision with my own?
  2. Take your emotional temperature. “It sounds silly, but I think it works,” Gino says. “It’s very easy to take stress or other emotions you feel from one area of life into another, unrelated time and place.” So if you feel your emotional temperature rising in rush hour traffic, avoid getting sidetracked when you get to work by asking yourself: Are the emotions I’m feeling at the moment going to cloud my judgement? Should I cool off for a minute and then start my day?
  3. See the big picture. “Often, we’re very narrowly focused on the task at hand, and we forget to step back and zoom out,” Gino says. She advises periodically stopping to revisit the bigger goals we set out to accomplish and make sure they stay on our minds, even though the details of carrying them out can require the bulk of our attention.

Do you find yourself getting sidetracked? Why do you think it happens? How do you avoid it?


Visit Francesca Gino’s website for more about her research on decision-making, judgement, negotiations, and other areas of behavior. Buy Sidetracked on Amazon or Barnes & Noble for more research and tips on how to stay your course.

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