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A Proven Simple Plan to Reach Your Goals

By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C


A goal without a plan is just a wish. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Have you been putting off getting started on a goal that really matters to you? 


As humorist Tim Urban observes in his viral TED talk, habitual procrastinators delay until confronted by the “panic monster”—that overwhelming dread that grows bigger as deadlines loom closer. However, he emphasizes, deadlines don’t figure into many of our most important aspirations, e.g., finding an ideal mate, developing a career, buying a house, nurturing our relationships, and so on. And so many of us struggle to find the motivation to act.


More than one PhD student has moaned to me, “I just wish someone would give me a hard deadline so I could get going on my dissertation.”  Sound familiar?  Minus the sense of impending doom, it can be easy to delay starting on an important goal, promising to get to it “someday,” “when I feel more like it.”  Unfortunately, many people reach their death bed regretting the things they never got around to doing.


Without a clear threat of fines or failure, what could possibly motivate a master procrastinator to pursue their dreams and avoid later regrets? 


If procrastination and panic monsters rule your days, then you will appreciate a science-backed strategy that can completely transform how you relate to your goals.


The problem, it turns out, is not the lack of a hard deadline but rather the lack of a hard start time. You need to stop focusing on “due” dates and instead focus on “do” dates. You need an “if-then” plan.


Not All Plans Are Created Equal


When I first wrote about “if-then” plans ten years ago, the concept was innovative. Now, with mounds of supportive data and success in applying it with clients and myself, I’ve come to an unambiguous conclusion:  “If-then” planning is one of the most powerful strategies that we have in our productivity arsenal. It is as powerful as it is simple, as you will see below.


“He who fails to plan is planning to fail,” observed Winston Churchill, and other sages have concurred. However, not all plans are created equal. Let’s take the example of writing a dissertation or book. Do your plans look something like this?

  • Write more

  • Exercise more

  • Spend more time with family


These may look like plans, but they are merely aspirations until you add a couple details that research shows make all the difference.


In the original study, Dr. Peter Gollwitzer and his team asked college students to write an essay on how they spent Christmas and to mail it in no later than December 27. Half of the participants were also asked to note their plan for when and where they would write it. After Christmas, the responses poured in:  While just 32% of the students with no particular plan responded, a whopping 71% of the students with a plan sent theirs in--more than twice as many!


In other words, just stating when and where they would do the work more than doubled the likelihood of getting it done. It turns out that this simple planning strategy works not only for academic goals but also for just about any other endeavor--from shedding pounds to greater recycling.


How to Double Your Chances of Success


To succeed, you don’t need to be a planning wizard. You simply state when and where you will do the relevant task (and preferably enter it on your calendar). While Gollwitzer calls these  “implementation intentions,” they are more commonly known as “if-then” plans, where “if” refers to the triggering event and “then” refers to your behavior. Note that “if” could be a specific time or circumstance. Here are typical examples:

  • “At 9 a.m. Tuesday, I will go to the gym and work out on the treadmill for 20 minutes.” 

  • “If the waiter offers me the dessert menu, I will ask for a cup of coffee.”

  • “When I finish washing the dishes, I will do a web search for air fares and flight times for my trip to Paris.”


The point is to know exactly what you will do and when and where you will do it.


Despite the simplicity of this strategy, scores of peer-reviewed research articles confirm its  power, generality, and user-friendliness. It has been used effectively by athletes, dieters, and scholars, as well as by individuals with schizophrenia and people struggling with heroin addiction, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson.


Study after study shows that people are twice as likely to succeed when they use if-then plans. If this strategy can work for them, then it can work for you.


Furthermore, if-then plans can be used to cultivate desirable habits. Are you trying to cut back on junk food?  Try telling yourself, “If I am tempted to have a soda, I will have a glass of water instead.” Do you need to regularize your sleep pattern?  Go with something like this:  “If it is 9 p.m., then I will turn off my devices, take a shower, and get ready for bed.”  


Gollwitzer and his colleague and partner Gabrielle Oettingen have combined their research-based strategies into an even more powerful tool, “WOOP,” which you can explore here.


How Does an If-Then Plan Work?


You may be wondering how such a simple formulation works.


First, by having a specific plan about when and where you will act, you have set up automatic triggers (the "if" part) that propel you into action (the "then" part).


Think of it this way: When you see a red light, you automatically stop. You don't waste time  mulling the decision--you just do it.


Let's apply this to a dissertation project. Is your next step reading and summarizing journal articles for the literature review? You can tell yourself, "If I have finished breakfast, then I will sit down at my desk and read the next article and summarize it." Then, as you finished your last spoonful of granola, voila! A little switch goes off inside your head: "It is now after breakfast--that means it is time to sit down and read that article."


Our brains abhor open loops, so instead of spinning your wheels and losing an opportunity to make progress, it nudges you into action to close it. Without a plan, you could easily waste time hemming and hawing: "Should I check my email now? Or should I go for a run?" Then before you know it, it's lunchtime, as I have learned from personal experience!


Second, by precommitting to a course of action, you save mental energy. This leaves more of your limited willpower energy for when you really need it. (That’s another story.)


A word of warning:  Don’t be caught unawares. Imagine the likely temptations or obstacles that may try to pull you off course and create contingency if-then plans for them. Even Odysseus, sailing home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, was prescient enough to order his men bind him to the mast and put beeswax in their ears in advance to resist the enchanting but treacherous call of the Sirens.


Here are ways my clients have used "if-then" plans to deal with potential distractions, temptations, and saboteurs:

  • "If the phone rings while I am working, then I will let voice mail get it."

  • "If I am tempted to start baking brownies while working, then I will have a cup of tea instead."

  • "If I am tempted to turn on Netflix or Prime Video after dinner, then I will tell myself I can watch a show after I work 30 more minutes on my project.”

  • “If someone or something interrupts me, I will quickly assess whether it is a real emergency.  If it is not, I will get to it later and return to my task at hand.”



What Simple If-Then Plans Will Help You Flourish? 


“The secret to getting ahead is getting started,” observed Mark Twain. As the research shows, the secret to getting started is committing yourself to a start time.


Your challenge:  What "if-then" plans could you create in order to reach your goal of finishing that important project?  Here’s one to try immediately:  “When I finish reading this blog post, I will get out my planner and enter the next project task for a specific date and time.”  It could be as simple as noting “check airline fares to San Jose” at 8 pm tonight.


My prediction is that IF you put this research-based strategy to work for you, THEN you are much more likely to finish that doctorate, visit Paris, learn Italian, get fit, or achieve any other goal. To complete your personal odyssey, keep asking yourself these questions:  What do I need to do next?  When and where will I get started?  Before long, by continuing to take steps forward this way, you will reach the finish line.



P.S.  Partner with a coach and reach your goals faster.  Ask for a free discovery session here.

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