Say you’ve decided to start an exercise program that includes walking 30 minutes each morning. You’ve set your alarm for 5:30 am and have your running gear ready. You feel good the first three days of your program. On the 4th day, it rains. You’re out of synch, and by days 5 and 6 your motivation has waned. Your plan was not specific enough. The If – Then plan is very specific in how you will manage this situation. If it rains, I will skip rope for 20 minutes. The if – then version tells you exactly what you will do in a critical situation. You are two to three times more likely to succeed in your plans by using this version.
If X happens, then I will do Y.
X can be any condition and Y is the specific action you will take. For a student with acute anxiety about test taking, for example, the student may rehearse what she/he will do: “If I can’t think of the answer to one question, then I will go to the next”, or “if I feel myself getting anxious, then I will breathe slowly 5 times”. When test-taking students implemented this plan they solved almost 50 % more problems than students who did not use the plan. And, Peter Gollwitzer, the NYU psychologist who first articulated the plan, found (in a review of 94 studies that used the technique) significantly higher success rates for just about every goal imaginable.
This process is effective because it speaks the language of the brain. We humans encode information in terms of contingencies to guide our behaviors.. Deciding on X – Y creates a link in your brain between the situation/cue (If) and the behavior to follow (Y). And this can occur unconsciously. When the “if” part happens, the “then” part responds.
Think of the worst case scenario in anything that could interfere with your goals or well being, from remembering to call your wife when you leave the office, to ordering only coffee when the dessert cart arrives. Practice establishing your If – Then solution to reach your goals.