IF you want to reach a goal THEN you must have a plan

27 Jul 2017

Sometimes we all run out of willpower and grit – that’s what makes us human. The approach we’re going to look at today will help you think through the obstacles you might face in trying to achieve your goals, and the strategies you can employ when those obstacles occur. My clients who have used it swear by it and I can honestly say it’s something that has worked for me, too.

In her bestselling book Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D states that if-then planning can increase our effectiveness by up to 300%.

Grant Halvorson based her work on the theories of her postdoctoral adviser at New York University, Peter Gollwitzer – the psychologist who first studied if-then planning and who described it as creating ‘instant habits’ that (unlike many other habits) actually help us reach our goals, rather than getting in the way.

Take lists for example – capturing everything I need to do in a list might sound like a good habit. I love a list – in fact I love lists so much, I have been known to add tasks I have already completed for the pure pleasure of ticking them off. While this might feel good, it doesn’t add much to achieving my goals – in fact, it’s an excellent procrastination tactic!

Create a trigger for action

As Grant Halvorson writes: “We’re neurologically wired to make if-then connections. Our brains like the language of contingencies. When people decide exactly when, where, and how they will fulfil their goals, they create a link in their brains between a certain situation or cue (‘If or when x happens’) and the behaviour that should follow (‘then I will do y’). In this way, they establish powerful triggers for action.”

Grant Halvorson goes on to say that, “If-then plans are far less taxing and require less willpower than resolutions. They enable us to conserve our self-control strength for when it’s really needed, and compensate for it when we don’t have enough.”

Embrace the awkward!

In effect, if-then planning is programming a reminder into our brain, below our conscious awareness. Our brain scans the environment looking for it and when it spots the ‘trigger’ it reminds us of what we wanted to do, without having to consciously think about it.

The funny thing is, although it’s natural to the way our brains work, it can feel really awkward and stilted when you first start using if-then planning because it’s not the usual way we would speak to ourselves or others. This is actually part of the reason it’s a successful strategy. When we express our goals in the more relaxed language we’re used to, the details and execution don’t always stick.

Rather than simply trying to stop yourself doing something, for example by saying ‘When I’m craving chocolate, I just won’t eat it’, it is much more effective to plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones. So in this example you might say: ‘If it gets to 3pm, and I feel like chocolate, then I’m going to choose some almonds instead’.

Without the ‘if-then’ plan in place, when that craving comes calling you will reach for the chocolate without thinking. But now, my brain is scanning for 3pm and reminding me I want to choose almonds instead.

Take your team on the if-then journey

Many of us create goals for ourselves and our team, but we don’t define the specifics of getting it done. We assume that everyone will inherently know how to move from the big picture to delivery.

Like any of the things we discuss here, improving what we do personally not only improves our own performance and leadership, it can also increase our team’s performance. Grant Halvorson references recent studies which indicate that if-then planning improves team performance by:

  • Sharpening their focus and prompting members to carry out key activities in a timely manner

  • Pinpointing conditions for success, increasing everyone’s sense of responsibility, and helping close the troublesome gap between knowing and doing

  • Improving organisational decision making through increased information exchange and cooperation

  • Avoiding groupthink (which I wrote about here) where team members avoid conflict by focusing on information that they all possess from the start, rather than offering up unique data and insights.

Grant Halvorson notes that team members should review their if-then plans regularly: ”Studies show that rehearsing the if-then link can more than double its effectiveness. It also allows groups to periodically reassess how realistic their plans are. Is anything harder or taking longer than expected? Are there steps that the team didn’t plan for? If circumstances change, your if-then plans need to change, too—or they won’t have the desired impact.”

What’s your ‘If-then’?

Try it now. Pick one goal you have – make it something simple to start with.

Because it’s a little awkward to begin with, here’s a tool that will take you through the process step-by-step. Click on the brain to get going.


Trying anything new can be uncomfortable, but with results like this, it’s worth persevering – and encouraging your team, too, as well. Remember, success is about what you do, not who you are.