Sometimes life feels like I’m learning to golf. There are so many things I want to remember to do to, in pursuit of my biggest goals, that I end up flailing around with a distinct lack of finesse.
I want to grow the business, get healthy, be a better parent, help others and the list goes on, creating a daunting set of tasks that cry out for my attention. Make the call, do more research, write more, drink more water, play more games. And on and on it goes.
The research is clear. The longer the list of decisions we have to make in a day, the greater the degree of decision fatigue and the less likely we are to make the best decisions. Fact.
Have you noticed, however, that you don’t struggle to get some things done? You probably didn’t think too much about bathing, brushing your teeth or getting dressed this morning. You ate and fed the kids or cat or whatever other life forms rely on you for sustenance. When you really think about it, you only got out of the house after completing a fairly extensive to do list.
These things aren’t (I hope) a struggle because they are automatic. You don’t think about doing them, you just do them. They are habits.
Imagine how quickly we’d achieve our goals if more of the things we really need to do were automatic?
We’ve all heard that a new habit takes 21 days to create. It turns out that’s wrong. It’s closer to 66 days and actually ranges between 18 and 254 depending on you and your circumstances. This, according to James Clear in a great article on habits.
If you tend toward the impatient, there’s hope. That hope comes in the form of ‘implementation intentions’ or ‘if-then plans’ and draws on the extensive research of Peter Gollwitzer. The process is simple, action-oriented and will help you reach your goals faster, whatever form those goals take.
The If-Then Plan
The idea is this. An ‘if-then plan’ spells out, in advance, how you will achieve a goal and focuses on the actions you need to take. You create situational cues that are linked to a specific action which, in turn, makes those actions more automatic.
Let’s assume, for example, you want to get healthy and, as part of that plan, drink more water. Your situational cue might be walking into the kitchen. Your response might be drinking a glass of water. In this case, the ‘if-then’ statement is the following. “If I walk into the kitchen, I will drink a full glass of water.”
The difference between this form of statement and simply setting a goal to “drink more water” is tied into how the brain is wired.
According to Heidi Grant, the Global Director of R&D at the NeuroLeadership Institute, “If-then plans work because contingencies are built into our neurological wiring. Humans are very good at encoding information in ‘If x, then y’ terms and using those connections (often unconsciously) to guide their behavior.”
Gollwitzer describes the process as creating an “instant habit”. The process “helps close the gap between holding goals and attaining them.”
Related: Are Your Goals Limiting Your Growth?
Creating Your Own Instant Habits
The process of ‘if-then’ planning has four steps:
- Set a overall goal (e.g., get healthy),
- Identify sub-goals (e.g., drink more water),
- Identify the ‘if’ or your situational cue (e.g., walk into the kitchen),
- Identify the ‘then’ or your goal-directed response (e.g., I will drink a glass of water).
The process works because: the actions are very specific, they link to achieving your goal and they tie back to a clear cue. The beauty of the process is that it forces you to think through the exact activities that you need to do to reach your goals rather than setting lofty, but ultimately vague, goals.
- If it’s 4:00 I will call one of my best clients to check in.
- If it’s 7:30 I will identify three priorities for the day ahead.
- If I am leaving the office, I will identify the first thing I will do when I arrive the next day.
- If I get out of bed, I will put on my work-out clothes.
- If my son arrives home from school I will ask him about his day.
According to Grant, drawing on data from 200 separate studies, ‘if-then’ planners are about 300% more likely than others to reach their goals. Nice.
It should be pointed out that your level of personal commitment to the goal plays a significant role in all of this. There’s nothing that will cause you to take action on a regular basis if you aren’t fully committed to the goal and the individual action. But I’m guessing you knew that already.
So what do you think? Can you identify one action today that you will translate into an if-then plan?
Articulate, write it down, repeat it often and make it easy. Making it easy would mean putting the glass beside the sink, having a team member put the name and phone number of a key client on your desk each day or putting your work-out clothes beside the bed.
I’d love to know how it works for you.
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