The willpower substitute: the power of if-then planning

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

Published
04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

If “we are we repeatedly do,” as Stephen Covey asserts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (with a nod to Aristotle), then it follows that habit-forming techniques are tools for success.

To create “instant habits” we can follow psychologist Peter Gollwitzer’s implementation intention technique – better known as if-then planning. Developed in the mid-1990s, this establishes an ‘if-then’ cue, 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. There is vast empirical evidence that if-then planners act more quickly, deal more effectively with cognitive demands and do not need to consciously intend to act in the critical moment. 

A trigger for action

Gollwitzer’s theory is based on the habit-forming technique of identifying the when [if] and how [then] so that you’ll will be more likely to take actions that support your goal. By encoding information in “if X, then Y” terms and using these connections to guide our behaviour (often unconsciously), we create triggers for action.

In practical terms you will need to:

  1. Select a goal. 
  2. Identify the single action (the ‘then’) that you'll focus on to meet your goal. 
  3. Identify a specific cue for the action (the ‘if’)
  4. Practise it so that the cue becomes a sub-conscious trigger for action.

For example:

If it’s 4 PM, then I’ll send any emails I need to before the end of the day.” 

Be specific

Being specific and intentional is key to if-then planning. Replace nebulous plans such as:

“don’t spend too long on emails” 

in favour of precise ones such as 

if it’s between 10 and 4, then I’ll turn off email notifications so as not to get distracted”. 

A clear implementation intention allows us to act without having to deliberate on whether or not to do so. Plans can be strengthened by creating strong links between situational cues and goal-directed responses, for example, by using mental imagery. 

However, they do not rely on willpower, enabling us to conserve our self-control for when it's really needed. 

 

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