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Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

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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

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Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

This article is totally awesome! This article not just works for young people but also for adults. Ever since I started extensively planning in advance, I've been able to exercise more and do more with my work at Virtual Science University which in itself is immense, when you are trying to empower one million minds by the year 2015. It's about planning and living in the present. As my music hero, puts it, "The present is where everything begins."~Carlos Santana

crazytechy's picture
Technology Coordinator from NYC

I really love this idea of planning to plan! I do believe that if you organize your days by sorting out what are doing, even if it's a rough sketch, it helps you to stay on task and maximize your time. My middle school students have a difficult time keeping up with their classwork and with project assignment due dates, there's always an excuse why things are not completed on time, or why they forgot to bring in their project. This setup can help many of them, and set them up for success in their academic as well as their professional lives later on. I will definitely try this approcah and see how it works :)

Carrie Silva's picture
Carrie Silva
Fourth Grade Teacher from Colorado

I love this fresh new approach to planning. In the very busy life of being a mother, teacher, and student time management is crucial. I am amazed at how many times good intentions just do not happen. I will be very excited to try this new approach to making goals. It also fits in perfectly with what I am doing with my students. We are working on writing hypotheses for our science projects right now. Why not carry this over to what they are doing? This time of the year, I am always working on trying to get the students to be as reflective as possible. This is a great tool that will also help them understand that the scientific method also applies to a smart approach to thinking in general. I will definitely be using if/then statements to make sure I stick to my professional schedule as well as my exercise schedule. I am looking forward to what goals my students will be making for themselves, too.

BrittanyE's picture
Preschool teacher from North Augusta, South Carolina

I really enjoyed this article! It is a great innovative idea for organizing your life. This is will be so beneficial for me to use with work and with life outside of work. Often times I find myself sitting down at the end of the day wondering where my day went. I think back to all the things I did not get accomplished and how I could have easily completed these tasks if I had been more organized. I will definitely use if/than plans to help increase my time management.


Alina Dougherty's picture
Alina Dougherty
Math 7 Norfolk VA

I think this is a great decision making model. My students are very good at following a prescription or formula and performing the computation to answer math problems. But, they fail miserably at deciding what approach to take when the problems are mixed (like on stardardized test). I wonder if we practiced decision making, with "if - then" statements, if their decision making (problem identification) would improve. I try to teach this method indirectly but, this article has made me think I need to bring the process of decision making and planning to the forefront of instruction. It needs to be practiced!

LAS71's picture
K-12 Intervention Specialist

This was a wonderful article. I know as the single parent of three young children who teaches full time and attends college online, life and all of its responsibilities can seem overwhelming at times. I liked the idea of "If/then statements" to sort of organize the day. I know that if I at least have some sort of idea or framework for my day, it definitely seems to go smoother and I get much more done.

Patti Swanson's picture
Patti Swanson
First grade teacher, International School, Seoul, Korea

I think the "if-then" training should be modeled for parents. I find a great number of the parent community I work with do everything in their power to create the goals for their children, but then also prevent the child from learning the techniques to achieve those goals. It is much simpler for the parent to intervene and 'push, push, push' the child (meaning an extra tutor each day of the week to ensure the child is keeping up with homework, etc.). There is a huge push here for children and young adults to be 'the best,' regardless if the goal is intrinsically motivated or not.
Helping parents to do the walk though with the child of goal setting and the if/the scenarios to get the child on board could be amazingly powerful. And think about how successful and fulfilled these students would be as they mature knowing that they can prepare and accept the challenges of planning and meeting goals. There's a richness to this idea that I would love to see utilized in counseling offices all over Korea.

Sia Knight's picture
Sia Knight
Central Office Administrator /Large suburban district

This article contains solid advice for inndividuals of all ages. I will implement this strategy as I start my day!

withem's picture

I will start teaching my students about these traits this year! I think it can help them take ownership and work hard to be successful.

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