Brain-Based Learning

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

The motivational magic of “if-then” planning

February 6, 2012

One of the trickiest challenges any child faces (or any adult, for that matter) is figuring out how to get from wanting to do something -- like getting a better grade on his or her next quiz, or studying over the summer for college admissions tests -- to actually doing it. Commitment is a first and very necessary step when it comes to reaching a goal, but it's just the beginning.

Psychologists have spent years studying the process and pitfalls of goal pursuit, and identifying strategies for overcoming those pitfalls -- knowledge that could be of particular benefit to young learners.

In the except below from her new e-book, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently (Harvard Business Press), you'll read about one of Dr. Halvorson's favorite tools in the motivation toolbox: if-then planning. In a study she conducted with the University of Pennsylvania's Angela Duckworth and New York University's Peter Gollwitzer, she notes, "We used it to more than double the amount of summer preparation 10th graders did for their upcoming PSATs. It's a simple technique that's easy to teach, with a truly remarkable impact."


2) Seize the Moment to Act on Your Goals

Given how busy most of us are, and how many goals we are juggling at once, it's not surprising that we routinely miss opportunities to act on a goal because we simply fail to notice them. Did you really have no time to work out today? No chance at any point to return that phone call? Achieving your goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers.

To seize the moment, decide when and where you will take each action you want to take, in advance. Again, be as specific as possible (e.g., "If it's Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I'll work out for thirty minutes before work."). Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity when it arises, increasing your chances of success by roughly 300 percent.

Very few of us are as productive as we could be. We want to be focused with laserlike precision on critical tasks and make the best, most efficient use of our time. Instead, we get distracted by coworkers, lost in our inboxes, and too absorbed by unimportant aspects of a single project, when we'd be better off turning our attention to other things.

Wanting to be more productive isn't enough to actually make you more productive. You need to find a way to deal effectively with the distractions, the interruptions, and the fact that there is just way too much on your plate. Fortunately, there is a very simple strategy that has been proven to do the trick.

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.

Making if-then plans to tackle your current projects, or to reach your health or relationship goals, is probably 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 written the report before lunch, then I will make it the first thing I do when I return.
  • If I am getting too distracted by colleagues, then I will stick to a five-minute chat limit and head back to work.
  • If it is 6 p.m., then I will spend an hour working out in the company gym before heading home.

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.

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 4 p.m.! 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 about 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.)

So if you are finding, day after day, that too many important tasks have gone unaccomplished, and you need to introduce better habits of time management into your life by seizing opportunities to get things done, look no further: try making a simple plan. By using if-thens to tackle your goals, you won't actually be creating more hours in the day, but it will certainly feel as if you did.

Putting It into Practice: 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.)

Copyright 2011 Harvard Business School Publishing

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.