Nutshell: The willpower substitute: the power of 'if-then' planning

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

Creating “instant habits” with implementation intentions will help us to achieve our goals.

When journalist and author, Charles Duhigg, was researching his bestselling book, The Power of Habit, he found that he had himself fallen into a routine that had less than positive effects. Every afternoon, he’d wander down to the cafeteria, indulge in a cookie and chat with his colleagues. A post-it note on his computer saying NO MORE COOKIES was not enough to stop him gaining eight pounds in short order. So much for willpower.

If “we are what we repeatedly do”, as author Stephen Covey asserts (with a nod to Aristotle), then Duhigg was in trouble. As he found out, habits – patterns of behaviour that we follow so regularly that they become automatic, almost involuntary – can be powerful things. But when Duhigg decided to take his own medicine and diagnose why he just couldn’t stop eating those cookies, he discovered that, by understanding how habits form, he could intervene to create a new habit that gave him what he wanted without resorting to sugar and carbohydrate.

How habits form: the habit loop

Duhigg’s habit loop is a simple way to help us understand how habits – both good and bad – can become entrenched behaviours.

It’s a simple model which identifies the relationship between a cue or prompt (what triggers our habit), how we react (the routine) and what our perceived reward or goal for that routine may be.

By interrogating each step of the loop using a four-stage plan, Duhigg was able to:

  1. Understand his routine – the cookie-eating behaviour he wanted to change.
  2. Think carefully about the reward he really wanted. When it came down to it, this was not about the cookie per se, but the chance to gossip with his colleagues.
  3. He was then able to isolate the cues that so often trigger our routines: time and location. By mid-afternoon every day, he was ready to leave his office for some social interaction in a different space.

Armed with this knowledge, Duhigg could move to the fourth and final stage:

  • Shifting his behaviour by planning for the cue and delivering the reward he wanted without eating a cookie along the way.

Because habits are basically a formula our brain follows automatically:

when I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD

Duhigg was able to reframe his cookie habit loop with the following plan:

            At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for ten minutes.

It seems quite a simple shift, but it worked. It had become a new habit. Rather than relying on willpower alone, having a plan helped Duhigg to achieve his real goal: talking with a colleague each afternoon.

Implementation intentions: if-then planning

Duhigg’s is a graphic example of how we can all achieve the goals or rewards we want – like finding time to study for this qualification – by putting in place some simple planning to embed what psychologist, Peter Gollwitzer, calls “instant habits”.

In the 1990s Gollwitzer developed his implementation intention technique – better known as if-then planning. Just like Duhigg’s cue-routine-reward loop, it’s a way of helping us to harness a particular cue to trigger a behaviour or action that will help us towards our goal without having to rely just on willpower or motivation.

These ‘if-then’ cues are usually expressed in terms of:

If [a situation occurs] then I will [behave in a particular way]. 

Studies show that if-then planners are about 300% more likely than others to reach their goals. They tend to act more quickly, deal more effectively with cognitive demands and do not need to deliberate endlessly before acting in a critical moment. More widely, implementation intentions have been credited with helping people to embed positive behaviours like exercising or sleeping more and with stopping damaging behaviours like smoking.

In one experiment, Gollwitzer asked his students to hand in an assignment two days before Christmas. One group was simply given the deadline; the other was asked to create specific if-then statements around when, where and how they would deliver their work. The first group had a 32% success rate. By the simple act of creating a plan, the second group’s success rate was more than double, at 72%.

How does if-then planning work?
Gollwitzer’s theory is based on the habit-forming technique of identifying the when [if] and how [then] so that we’ll be more likely to take actions that support our goals. By encoding information in 'if X, then Y' terms and using these connections to guide our behaviour (often unconsciously), we can identify triggers (cues) to help us take the action we want to take.

In practical terms, we need to:

  1. Select a goal. 

For example, successfully completing this qualification.

  • Identify the single action (the ‘then’, Duhigg’s routine) that we’ll focus on to meet our goal. 

For example, studying regularly.

  • Identify a specific cue for the action (the ‘if’).

For example, identifying a specific time and/or place that is conducive to study.

  • Practise it so that the cue becomes a subconscious trigger for action.

For example, a regular routine that will help us to embed good study habits.

As a result, we might create if-then statements like:

If it’s Monday evening, then I’ll spend two hours studying”.

Be specific
Being specific and intentional is key to if-then planning. Nebulous plans, such as “don’t spend too long on emails” or “study more” simply won’t work, because we won’t create the automatic link (the habit) we need to make us more likely to act. We’ll be relying instead on limited reserves of willpower or motivation.

Precise, clear implementation intentions replace that willpower with an established, pre-determined plan of action, for example:  

If it’s between 7 and 9pm on a Monday, then I’ll turn off social media notifications so as not to get distracted”. 

We can also use them to anticipate things that might derail us, for example:

If it’s too noisy for me to study at home, then I’ll go to my local library/coffee shop where I can concentrate better”.

or to re-frame and counter our cognitive biases, for example:

If I find myself catastrophising about never completing my course, then I’ll remind myself of the progress I’ve already made and the plan I have in place to keep studying.

When – like Duhigg – we plan for when and where we will perform a new habit, we’re much more likely to follow through. A clear implementation intention helps us to act without having to dither about whether or not to do so, helping us to avoid the twin perils of procrastination and unhealthy distraction.

Plans can be strengthened by creating strong links between situational cues and goal-directed responses; for example, by using mental imagery. We can visualise the situation we find ourselves in and how our plan suggests we should respond as a result.

If we really want to achieve our goals, implementation intentions show us that it’s best to plan for exactly when and how we’re going to act in ways that will help to make them a reality. By creating if-then plans, we no longer have to rely just on willpower or motivation, but can create those habits that will support our goals.

And we can also conserve that willpower or self-control for when it’s really needed. 



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