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Changing Your Life: How To Reach Your Goal With If-Then Planning

Changing a habit isn’t an overnight kind of thing. No, it happens over time, as you face one situation at a time.

One of the most powerful techniques for making a successful change is If-Then Planning.  It’s likely you’ve used the process in your life but may not have given it a name.  Here, we’ll use the name because the name tells you exactly what to do.

The fact is, you can use if-then planning to reach just about any goal you set in life.  Here, of course, we’ll use it for making successful changes.  To begin, let’s look at what it is:

If is a situation that could lead to falling off your change plan.  For example, a dieter might easily fall off their plan in a buffet line laden with cheeses and casseroles and breads and desserts.  All the wrong foods for their diet.

Then is the action you planned for that specific circumstance.  The dieter’s then might be that they’ll only choose vegetables and lean meats.  They could even plan     to choose fruit when they reach the desserts.  They prepared their mind to know how to manage the event before it even happened.

Our dieter imagined all the situations that might block her from her goal.  She then made a plan of action to foil each possible situation. 

If-then is one of the tactics I used when I quit smoking.  I thought of all the places and times that would make me want a cigarette.  With coffee in the morning, with a cocktail in the evening and so on.  That prepared me for the inevitable drink with friends.  My brain recognized the situation, If I’m having cocktails with friends.  Immediately, my brain recalled the action I’d planned, then, I’ll tell myself not right now, think about it again in fifteen minutes.  The fifteen-minute segments were but one part of my quit smoking plan.  For the other methods I used, read Fifteen-Minute Wins.  Oh, and why fifteen minutes?  In the early days, that was about as long as I could manage without a cigarette.

Before you begin any change, you’ll have considered all the barriers to change (see The Stages of Change).  For every barrier and any other circumstance you imagine might stand in the way of your change, create if-then plans.  Perhaps you and a friend enjoy cheesecake together.  That needs an if-then plan, why not start a new kind of dining tradition?  Perhaps you enjoy a cigarette during your 8AM staff meeting – it’s a virtual meeting so no one knows you are smoking..  That needs an if-then plan.

There are ways to enhance your if-then planning success.  Goal attainment social scientist, Peter Gollwitzer, finds that goals in our lives are important for guiding our behavior.  He offers this advice for increasing your if-then success:

  • Be committed.  Half-hearted attempts wear us down physically and mentally.  Fully commit to your goal and your plan and you are well on your way. 
  • Make a plan to get started.  One of the greatest reasons for failure is the failure to begin.  Plan for that.
  • Be specific.  When you break your goal into its many tiny steps and then apply if-then planning, you’ve multiplied your likelihood of success.
  • Expect the unexpected.  Other goals and life events can create sudden and surprising barriers.  Be prepared to adapt.  At the same time, blend your various life goals so they are mutually supportive.

Interestingly, Gollwitzer’s research showed that simply writing the goal is only weakly  related to success with goals. 

It’s A Matter of Degree

Often, we have habits that support the habit we might want to change.  That means we’ll need to change the support habits as well.  That doesn’t mean radical change; instead, it’s all a matter of degree.  If you celebrate your week’s end in a bar and you’ve decided to quit drinking or smoking, then change the venue.  Think of all the other spots where people congregate – coffee houses, a dance club, a health club.  Be the leader who finds other fun things to do.  It may feel different but that’s okay, you are working to make a difference in your life.

If-Then For Other Purposes

If-then is a terrific teaching tool for children and young people.  It’s the very same process.  If a specific situation occurs, then this is the action and the words you use.  It prepares young people for the unexpected.  They are ready with the right answer before the situation presents itself.

If I am driving, then my phone is put away. 

If a stranger approaches me, then I walk away.

It’s also a terrific planning tool for the ordinary but necessary parts of one’s day.

If I am doing my homework, then I don’t check for texts or messages.

If I feel irritated by a coworker, then I will take a break and a speed-walk to get the irritation out of me.