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How To Use If-Then Planning To Achieve Any Goal

Vague plans don’t get done. Capitalize on the natural language of your brain and be specific when setting goals.

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.

How about you?

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

Comments (41)

    This sounds so simple, but I bet it is very effective. I’m going to put it to use today. I will spend a great portion of my morning organizing my goals and make if – then plans around them. Fantastic tool.


    Dan @ ZenPresence

  • Dan_ZenPresence

    This sounds so simple, but I bet it is very effective. I’m going to put it to use today. I will spend a great portion of my morning organizing my goals and make if – then plans around them. Fantastic tool.


    Dan @ ZenPresence

  • Megan Kerr

    I’ve used this extensively with my writing students and it’s a great help, especially for planning around specific future obstacles. (IF I’m too tired to write when I get in, THEN I’ll take a shower to refresh myself and start thinking about writing.) Over a long project, though, I’ve discovered that planning can backfire. I used Christian Jarrett’s 99U article on that in my post on how that relates to writing and creativity.

  • Erwin de Beer

    I use IF Then planning all the time and it works like a charm. Especially when at the end of my working day I didn’t complete all my tasks for that day: IF my task list isn’t empty by the end of the day THEN I use tomorrow’s free space in my planning to finish my today’s tasks.

  • Daryle Dickens

    IF I read a blog post THEN I leave a comment is just one small example of how I use this system to help me get things done. It is really effective with actions that must be repeated to get closer to a goal.

  • Ali Davies

    I love the simplicity of this.

  • Markof Render du Frame

    It’s a powerful tool !! it allows me to learn different languages, something that i have always wanted, but i thought i did not had enough time.

  • Christian Burne

    Great timing. I’m flat spinning out to sea on a few goals right now and was looking for inspiration. Tried this, this afternoon. Unsurprisingly, it worked well…very well. Good programming…thanks a mill for the wisdom.

  • Kennett Kwok

    Very cool idea! It can be just that simple…

  • Rob Jager

    I would love to see the study about the research completed concerning the exercising routines of those using the if – then strategy. Would you mind sharing that?

  • Joey

    I think that this approach only covers a part of achieving goals. Saying to yourself “If X happens, then I will Y” is a good start but you need to have the commitment of actually following through on these goals.

  • Guest

    Planning feels like postponing the things that should be done (in my mind).

  • Parvesh A. Deosarran

    Cool idea though..

  • Megan Kerr

    One strategy is only ever part of it – but this particular one is very effective at controlling your future self, helping you act on that commitment. BPS Research Digest has a great article on using these: http://bps-research-digest.blo

  • Megan Kerr

    Not sure I agree with that – stepping back to take a wholistic view on things and make long-term plans can be much more effective than leaping straight into the doing of each one. It allows you oversight, “helicopter vision”. 99U has a great article on thinking vs doing mindsets here:….

  • Parvesh A. Deosarran

    Thanks for the insight on doing vs THINKING. Thinking for the purpose of generating ideas which is beneficiary to my projects something different (imo) than planning how to go about your daily tasks; As is outlined in this article..And i believe making a long term plan on the doing isn’t effective. Ever had someone asking you about your plans for the coming 3 years? Too many random variables in THIS planning, and that’s what dims my focus..

  • katfishkelly

    i use it with my diet. If i hit a certain weight.. then i eat rabbit food and stop soft drinks until i get down 5 or 10 pounds.. then go back to eating whatever I want.. its more enjoyable to be able to eat anything.. and then lose it than to change my diet to something less satisfying ALL the time.. also, if i do “a house chore” then I can play “like watch a movie or play on web” .. but I call it a reward system for myself to not be able to Have enjoyment without doing something unenjoyable that just needs to be done to rationalize the “okayness” of doing the fun stuff. Like you teach a kid.. can not go out to play until chores are done.
    as an adult there is no one to make rules.. so the not so fun stuff can get put off… and i am one to put things off… so to motivate myself I tell myself I do not get the priveledge of playing until the work i dont like has been done. If i do not follow that rule.. i actually feel guilty while trying to enjoy my fun.. so it distracts from my ability to have the fun .. so i have learned just to get the yuckie stuff over with like laundry or mowing or dishes and then i can free in spirit feel no guilt in enjoying my self allowed play time. lol…. I tooo love creative things but find i cannot get in a creative mode with people and distractions around. by the time the distractions are over .. its late and i have to sleep to go to work. I know i will be a night owl in retirement when i can stay up all night with no worry about having to work the next day.. and painting and drawing type hobbies will be allowed to blossom and grow .. as of now with the duties of having to adhere to a work schedule to make money to survive.. i let my inner creativity stagnate and i feel smothered and unable to release my inner ideas as they would take time to get involved in creating art.. without having my creative mind getting interrupted by ordinary mundane tasks or duties or interrruptions like phone calls and door bells and family members wanting to spend time with me. If I could figure out a way to make money using my creativity I would be in HOG HEAVEN! I just dont see it happening tho. Why cant life be fun at work by having a creative job that actually makes enough money to sustain a basic living .. you know utilties and a shelter nothing more fancy.. Everyone in artsy world is selling their stuff so the reality of making a living doing that is not a real reality.. sure a nice dream .. but not a reality for the majority. Just a fun idea for a hobby if work and regular life would quit getting in the way. 🙂

  • Guest

    Hi Rob – sure! It’s a study by Sarah Milne, Sheina Orbell, & Pascal Sheeran in the British Journal of Health Psychology (2002). The paper is called “Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: Protection motivation theory and implementation intentions.”

  • Heidi GrantHalvorson

    You are absolutely right Joey – the research does show that without commitment, if-then plans don’t work.

  • Heidi GrantHalvorson

    Sorry I posed as “Guest” there. Thanks for the interest Rob!

  • Heidi GrantHalvorson

    That’s so great to hear!

  • Chris

    I read all your articles! Thanks for all the interesting information.

  • Robin Bastien

    Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you for this tip – distractions are a critical problem for me. I’m going to employ this and report back with my experience 😀

  • Damon Blake

    If I find a page useful then I subscribe to their newsletter. Now I just need to figure out how to manage my time in reading them all.

  • satansfinest

    I’ve heard of this, but around where I’m from we call it “planning”. Crazy huh?

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