Use the if-then technique to make your decisions before you have to decide to exercise self-discipline. Our worst decisions come when we rely on our strength of character. Thus, plan around them. If X, then Y can be your new best friend, and it is applicable in just about everything we encounter on a daily basis. It turns out we behave better when linked to other things.
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A helpful habit that directly deals with the fork in the road that may or may not lead to self-discipline is the if-then technique. This is also sometimes known as an implementation intention – in other words, making your intention easy to implement. The if portion corresponds to an everyday event occurring, while the then portion corresponds to the self-disciplined action you desire.
The simple fact is that there’s a big gap between knowing what you want to do and actually getting it done. Whatever the case – distractions, inefficiencies, or procrastination – making the decision beforehand will make it easier.
If-then statements take the following form: if X happens, then I will do Y. That’s it. This is something you decide in advance, and there are two primary ways to use it. This makes it easier to build self-discipline because all you have to do is plug your desired action in as a natural consequence of something that is certain to happen. When actions are chained and given forethought, they tend to happen. When actions are left to individual negotiations on willpower, they tend to not happen.
As a quick example, if it is 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, then you will call your mother (for some of us, this might require massive self-discipline). Or if it is 3:00 p.m., then you will drink two liters of water, or if it is 9:00 p.m., then you will floss your teeth. These are examples of when you use if-then to accomplish a specific goal, the first type of use. X can be whatever event, time, or occurrence you choose that happens on a daily basis, and Y is the specific action that you will take.
The if-then statement simply takes your goals out of the ether and ties them to concrete moments in your day. A habit to eat healthier and drink more water has a set prescription, for instance, or a vow to have better dental health is carried out every day because it is contingent upon a daily occurrence. Instead of generalities, you get a time and place for when to act. Imagine that you are looking at an empty planner and trying to decide when to make a doctor’s appointment. Now imagine that you are trying to decide when to make the appointment, but you only have one slot open in your entire week. Sometimes, alleged freedom makes your task more difficult.
It seems simplistic, and it is, but it has been shown that you are two to three times more likely to succeed if you use an if-then plan than if you don’t. In one study, 91% of people who used an if-then plan stuck to an exercise program versus 39% of non-planners. Peter Gollwitzer, the NYU psychologist who first articulated the power of if-then planning, recently reviewed results from 94 studies that used the technique and found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, from using public transportation more frequently to avoiding stereotypical and prejudicial thoughts.
The primary reason if-then statements work so well is because they speak the language of your brain, which is the language of contingencies. Humans are good at encoding information in “If X, then Y” terms and using this process (often unconsciously) to guide our behavior. It’s the basis of decision-making, which is often subconscious and instantaneous. 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).
Suppose your significant other has been giving you a hard time about forgetting to text to inform them that you will be working late and not make dinner. So you make an if-then plan: if it is 6:00 p.m. and I’m at work, then I will text my significant other. Now the situation “6:00 p.m. at work” is wired in your brain directly to the action “text my sugar bear.”
Then the situation or cue “6:00 p.m. at work” becomes highly activated. Below your awareness, your brain starts scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. Once the “if” part of your plan happens, the “then” part follows automatically. You don’t have to consciously monitor your goal, which means your plans get carried out even when you are preoccupied.
The best part is that by detecting situations and directing behavior without conscious effort, if-then plans are far less taxing and require less willpower than mere resolutions. They enable us to conserve our self-discipline for when it’s really needed and compensate for it when we don’t have enough.
The second use of the if-then statement is also related to achieving a specific goal, in particular, how to avoid failing at that goal. You would still use if X then Y, but X would be an unexpected situation that you want to maintain control in and deal with. In the first use, X is simply any everyday situation, occurrence, or event. Here, X is something that may not happen but you want to be prepared for.
For instance, if you want to create a habit of drinking water, if you eat out at a restaurant, then you will get water with lemon only. That’s a situation that isn’t certain to occur, but it helps you adhere to your habit from the opposite end.
Complete these statements before you are in a dire situation and you can see how they work for you. It is like creating a rule for yourself to abide by. If you’ve given it thought beforehand, you can default to that guideline and not have to try to make a risky decision in the heat of the moment. Anticipate what’s going to happen and you are a step ahead of the game.
As another example, suppose it’s your birthday, but you’re on a strict diet and your office has a thing for surprise parties so you’ll probably be getting a cake. “If they brought cake, then I’ll turn it down and immediately drink a big glass of water.” Alternatively, you could be having a problem with procrastination, and you’re settling in for a big project you have to finish. You could say, “If the phone rings, then I’ll ignore it until I’m done.”
You can get more detailed with these statements and can prepare them for situations with more significance or danger than the above examples. But whatever the case, the if-then technique forces you to project yourself into common scenarios that could trigger reversion to a lack of willpower – and makes you plan for those triggers. It takes away your residuals of false justification and excuses for doing the wrong thing (or doing nothing) and sharpens your commitment to meeting your goals.
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