When a gym recently opened up near my house, I was determined to go regularly and make the most of the facilities. And I did — for about a month. But gradually, my visits became fewer and further between, until I realised I was paying for a bunch of machines and slabs of metal that I hadn’t touched in weeks. Guiltily, I cancelled my membership.
But perhaps I have my personality to blame. A new study tracking gym users has honed in one key factor that is related to how often they visit: their “planfulness”. This aspect of our personality, say the researchers, could be “uniquely useful” for predicting a range of goal-directed behaviours.
Planfulness refers to the extent to which people’s behaviour and way of thinking is “goal-promoting”. Highly planful people are adept at translating the abstract idea of a goal into actual decision-making, for instance, and are better at long-term planning. It’s unsurprising, then, that planful people report making greater progress towards their goals.
However, that research has relied on people reporting their own progress, rather than measuring their behaviour directly. So in their new paper, published in Psychological Science, Rita Ludwig and colleagues at the University of Oregon decided to see whether planfulness was associated with one particular goal-directed behaviour in the real world: how often people hit the gym.
The researchers recruited 282 people who visited the university gym, and asked them to complete scales measuring various personality traits, including the Planfulness Scale, for which they rated their agreement with questions like “Developing a clear plan when I have a goal is important to me”. Participants also wrote descriptions of any personal projects they had that involved using the facility. Then, over the course of a 10-week term, the researchers tracked how often they swiped into the gym.
The team found that participants who scored higher on planfulness visited the gym more often: a one point increase in the planfulness scores (out of a maximum of five points) was associated with 8.5 more gym visits over the course of the term. That association also held when the researchers looked back at the number of visits participants had made over the previous term. And overall, regardless of planfulness levels, participants visited the gym less often later in the term — perhaps because of end-of-term exam pressure.
Planfulness is part of the broader personality factor of conscientiousness, which has long been known to be associated with healthier, goal-driven behaviours. But in a subsequent analysis, the researchers found that participants’ scores on other aspects of conscientiousness, like self-control and grit, weren’t related to the number of times they visited the gym, while planfulness still predicted the number of gym visits even when the researchers controlled for those additional measures. That suggests that planfulness is the key to the relationship between conscientiousness and goal achievement, the authors write.
“While further testing is necessary, the accrued evidence to date suggests that measuring planfulness may be uniquely useful for researchers investigating a variety of goal-directed behaviors, including the pursuit of health and lifestyle goals,” the team concludes.
Of course, the number of swipe-ins to the gym is a fairly crude measure of goal progression, and it would be interesting to know how planfulness related to participants’ progress with their specific goals — lifting a certain weight, say, or reaching a specific running pace. That’s a task for future research, say the authors.
And, personally, I would like to know whether I can become more planful. When the researchers first reported on their Planfulness Scale last year, they wrote that although their studies show that individuals have inherent differences in the way they think about goals, “those patterns of thought are not so entrenched that they cannot be influenced by brief manipulations.” Perhaps it’s time to rejoin the gym.