Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How To Use If-Then Planning To Achieve Any Goal

There’s a big gap between knowing what you want to do and actually getting it done. We want to be focused with laser-like precision on critical tasks and make the best, most efficient use of our time. Instead, we get distracted, we procrastinate, and we wind up getting too absorbed by unimportant aspects of a single project when we’d be better off turning our attention to other things.

Fortunately, there is a very simple strategy that has been proven to help us deal effectively with the distractions.

It’s called if-then planning, and it’s a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., “If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success. Making if-then plans to tackle your current projects, or reach your 2012 goals, is probably – without exaggerating – the most effective single thing you can do to ensure your success.
If-then plans take the form:

If X happens, then I will do Y.

For example:

If I haven’t finished the grant application before lunch, then I will make it my top priority when I return.
If I am getting too distracted by colleagues, then I will stick to a 5 minute chat limit and head back to work.
If it is 2pm, then I will spend an hour reading and responding to important emails.

How effective are these plans? One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.”) The results were dramatic: months later, 91% of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39% of non-planners! 

A recent review of results from 94 studies that used the if-then technique found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, including monthly breast self-examination, test preparation, using public transportation instead of driving, buying organic foods, being more helpful to others, not drinking alcohol, not starting smoking, losing weight, recycling, negotiating fairly, avoiding stereotypic and prejudicial thoughts, and better time management.

The results were dramatic: months later, 91% of if-then planners were still exercising regularly.

Why are these plans so effective? Because they are written in the language of your brain – the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness. 

Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. This enables you to seize the critical moment (“Oh, it’s 4pm! I’d better return those calls”), even when you are busy doing other things. 

Since you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time deliberating what you should do next. (Sometimes this is conscious, and you actually realize you are following through on your plan. The point is it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means your plans can get carried out when you are preoccupied with other things, and that is incredibly useful.)

This enables you to seize the critical moment, even when you are busy doing other things.

So if you are finding, day after day, that too many important tasks have gone unaccomplished, and you are looking for a way to introduce better habits of time management into your life, look no further: try making a simple plan. By starting each morning making if-thens to tackle the day’s challenges, you won’t actually be adding hours to your day, but it will certainly seem like it.

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How about you?

Have you ever used if-then planning? What was the result?

Heidi Grant Halvorson

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Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
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