It’s called if-then planning, and it is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over a hundred 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 4 p.m., then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.
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: weeks later, 91 percent of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39 percent of nonplanners! Similar results have been shown for other health-promoting behaviors, like remembering to do monthly breast self-exams (100 percent of planners, 53 percent of nonplanners), and getting cervical cancer screenings (92 percent of planners, 60 percent of nonplanners).
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 their behavior, often below their awareness.
Making If-Then Plans
1) Identify a critical action you need to take to reach your goal.
2) When and where should you take this action? What is the critical situation?
3) Put it all together:
If (or When) _________________________, then ___________________. (Example: If it is 8 a.m. on Monday, then I will go for a run.)
4) Now, think about an obstacle that might derail you. This could be a temptation, a distraction, or some other factor that would interfere with your progress.
5) When that temptation or distraction comes calling, how will you handle it? What will you do instead?
6) Put it all together: If (or When) __________________________, then ____________________.
(Example: If an e-mail from a coworker makes me angry, then I will wait thirty minutes before answering so I can respond calmly.)
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