Achieve elusive goals with if-then planning.

If-then planning

Several years ago, I wrote a short story. It was, hands down, the most fun I’ve ever had writing fiction. I was on holiday at the time and spent the better part of two weeks scribbling happily. Then I added the job of editing the finished draft to my list of personal to-dos and went back to work. It would be twenty-nine months before I made any real headway on that assignment.

Twenty-nine. (Not even elephants gestate for so long.)

If you’re like me, there are tasks that you forward to the next day a few times—maybe even for a good week or so—due to time constraints or other equally practical limitations. Then there are the tasks you’re resistant to. You have everything you need to get started; the trouble is, you don’t want to. So you forward the job again and again until eventually, shamefaced, you quietly let it drop off your radar altogether. Such was the way of things with me and my short story. My goal was to finish it, to get it to that imperfect but satisfying state of done-ness that I know only by the Ah, there now sensation it produces in me. But after eight hours of typing away on a keyboard, the last thing I wanted to do was come home and type some more. My goal eluded me.

Then I stumbled across a technique called if-then planning and discovered a way through my resistance. Even the most elusive goals, it turns out, can be achieved with the right kind of planning.

If-then planning and how it works:

Perhaps disappointingly (now and then, anyway), my brain is not a machine. I can’t program it to do what I want it to do. None of us can. If we could, all those hopeful New Year’s resolutions would actually bear fruit. But it isn’t enough to decide, to instruct ourselves to accomplish something and then expect it to be accomplished. We must plan. Even something as simple as, say, cleaning the bathroom is far more likely to get done if I plan, albeit loosely, to do it. I don’t just decide to clean the bathroom; I decide when I will clean it and then add it to that day’s plan.

If-then plans operate much the same way but are formed and articulated to maximize the likelihood of execution.

"These plans work so well because they speak the language of your brain: the language of contingencies. Humans are very good at encoding information in "If X, then Y" terms, and using this process (often unconsciously) to guide our behavior. Deciding exactly when and where you will act on your goal creates a link in your brain between the situation or cue (the if) and the behavior that should follow (the then)."

The Science of Success: The If-Then Solution, by Heidi Grant

Handy, no? This, I decided, was worth trying with my short story. After all, garden variety planning had gotten me nowhere. Maybe I needed to add if-then secret sauce to my plans. Lots of it:

  • If it’s 9am on June 3rd, then I will strengthen C’s character (more assertive)

  • If it’s 9am on June 10th, then I will flesh out the intro (hint at the change to come)

  • If it’s 9am on June 17th, then I will try out making D’s character the old roommate

And so on. I added each task to its respective day’s plan and, one by one, tackled them. Finally.

Why does if-then planning help?

It sounds almost too simple, too whimsical even to make a meaningful difference. Peter Gollwitzer, the NYU psychologist who developed the concept of if-then plans, calls them implementation intentions and reports that they work “... by delegating action control to situational cues thus endowing action control with features of automaticity.” But this technique’s power is not only in the link created between cue and behavior. Because here’s what I discovered when I tried it for myself: if-then plans only appear so absurdly simple once they’re articulated. Creating them, though, requires careful, deliberate thought. Which is probably part of why if-then planning solves some common goal-achievement problems:

  • Invisible bullseyes made visible
    Spend more time with family. Enjoy life more. Get in shape. Not one of these goals is attainable. They’re too vague. How would you know if you’ve succeeded? Even if you are exercising more and eating well, for example, without benchmarks against which to register the changes, the goal to get in shape is still hanging over your head, making you feel as if you’re not making progress when in fact you are.

    If-then planning forces clarity more than any other planning strategy I’ve tried. If you don’t know what “get in shape” means to you when you sit down to plan, by the time you’ve finished, you will. You will know what you’re going to do, when and how you’re going to do it, and what the end result should be. You’ll end up with a goal more like “lose fifteen pounds and raise HDL cholesterol to >60.” A bullseye you can actually see, in other words.

  • Out of reach targets placed within range
    Failure is certain when we set goals we don’t have the ability to achieve. But history is littered with examples of people doing amazing, seemingly impossible things. How do you know when your goals are the bold, audacious stuff legends are made of and when they’re just plain delusional? If-then planning, my friends.

    Let’s say I wanted to write a novel in a month. It’s been done before, certainly, and there are some shining examples among the results. I might be tempted to believe that I can do it too. But as soon as I started the if-then planning process, my expectations would reveal themselves as vertiginously high. If it’s 9am … wait, no … I’m at work then. Okay, if it’s 4:30pm … well, except for Tuesdays, I’ve got that thing on Tuesdays. And so on and so forth.

    If you come to the if-then planning table with larger-than-life ideas about what you can achieve, you will leave it with more realistic, attainable goals provided you’re willing to adjust.

  • Faulty aim corrected
    I used to smoke cigarettes. I earnestly committed and subsequently failed to quit on many occasions. My goal was clear enough, and though reaching it would be extremely difficult, it wasn’t impossible. So why did I repeatedly fail? Because long-standing habits have their own cue/behavior links already deeply ingrained, and more importantly, I was entirely unaware of them:

    If I’m driving, then I will smoke a cigarette.
    If I’ve just eaten a meal, then I will smoke a cigarette.

    I don’t know about other smokers, but I had no idea that my smoking was so reactionary. It wasn’t until I thought about how if-then planning might’ve helped me quit and really considered the various ifs and thens that the light dawned. Had I spotted my habit's triggers before, I’d have been better positioned to break those cue/behavior links, especially if I replaced them with new ones:

    If it’s my first month smoke-free, then I will walk, take a bus, or get a ride instead of driving.
    If I’ve just eaten a meal, then I will brush my teeth and either take a walk or call a friend.

    As it was, I felt continually blindsided by cravings that if-then planning would’ve helped me prepare for by revealing when I could expect them.

When it came to my short story, the editing goal eluded me because it suffered from all three of those flaws:

  1. I hadn’t spelled out specifically what I hoped to accomplish. Edit story is the writer’s version of Get in shape.

  2. I expected to be finished within a week. I reasoned that I wrote it in two, so surely I should be able to edit it in one. But I failed to consider that I wrote it while on vacation, not in the free hours between work and everything else.

  3. I had an ingrained habit of working on fiction for many hours at a time, afraid to get started unless I could keep going until I finished or exhausted myself.

In hindsight, the only surprise is that I hadn’t encountered this degree of resistance before.

How to get started with if-then planning:

I’ve since tried this approach with things that don’t require a lot of focus (getting to bed on time, for example), but the results were pretty anemic. At least for me, I think the value of if-then planning is specific to large, complex projects and lies mostly in the deliberation. Having to think through what I’m committing to and how exactly I’ll achieve it is, I think, the not-so-magic magic of if-then planning. In light of that, articulating my plans in the “if X, then Y” format might not seem important. But I think it is, if for no other reason than the awkward phrasing slows down my thinking and forces me to consider more carefully than I otherwise would.

If you decide to try it, I recommend beginning with the if-then planning tool social psychologist and if-then planning expert Heidi Grant created. And do yourself a favor: click See Example before diving in to get an eye-opening look at this planning technique in action.

Now go forth and achieve your goals! Even the elusive ones.


Photo by Austris Augusts