The IF/THEN Plan
Whether it's healthy eating or regular exercise, we can all struggle to stick to our goals. Behavioural science is here to help and the IF/THEN Plan is one of its most accessible tools.
It's a simple technique to help you 'implement your goal intentions’, developed by Professor Peter Gollwitzer at New York University. This article was prompted by a lecture he gave at the London School of Economics in March 2018.
What's an IF/THEN Plan?
Let’s go back to healthy eating, a worthy but rather vague goal. First, an IF/THEN Plan demands that you specify the context where you can ‘implement that intention'. Then it asks you to make a plan to see it through.
- IF I am in the cereal aisle in the Supermarket, THEN I will check the packets for nutritional value and make a choice based on that information.
- IF I am at a restaurant, THEN I will ask the waiter whether they have any low-calorie options on the menu.
- IF I feel hungry when I am watching TV, THEN I will choose a snack from the ‘healthy’ section of my kitchen cupboard.
The way this technique works is far from intuitive. When I first heard about it, I thought the IF context — the cereal aisle, the restaurant, or watching TV — would remind me of the plan I had made 'in-the-moment' and jolt me into conscious action. But that isn't right. In fact, the exercise seems to hardwire the behaviour at an unconscious level. Gollwitzer calls it ‘strategic automaticity’ and it works by coding a mental association between the cue and the response that can operate without deliberative intent.
Put simply, it helps to create a habit without practice or repetition.
It sounds too good to be true.
Well, yes, you're right to be skeptical. When I told my colleagues about this the day after the lecture, they were incredulous (especially John, who printed out a 50 page academic meta-analysis on the subject for bedtime reading — he came in looking very tired the next day).
An IF/THEN Plan doesn’t guarantee you’re going to achieve your goals but then neither will anything else. Behavioural science is all about probability and seen through that lens, this simple technique does seem to have significant potential in comparison with more traditional and resource-intensive change initiatives. It's been a subject of psychological study for 25 years and over that time, it has been explored empirically across a range of behaviours:
The IF/THEN Plan has helped people achieve all sorts of goals, including ones that are either habitual or automated. It has helped people deal with a fear of spiders (IF I see a spider, THEN I will keep calm). It has helped people score higher on IQ tests by completing them more efficiently (IF I complete a question, THEN I will move immediately to the next). It has even helped groups of business leaders make commercially advantageous decisions by overcoming confirmation bias.
In 2006, Peter Gollwitzer and a fellow researcher, Paschal Sheeran analysed 94 independent studies like the above, involving over 8000 participants and found a medium-to-large effect size of the IF/THEN Plan on goal attainment. You can find it here:
What does this mean for organisations?
Let me offer one example of many. The lecture Peter Gollwitzer gave at LSE was the same week as International Women's Day, and as part of that #PressForProgress campaign, thousands of people shared public pledges of what they would do to support Gender Equality. All that energy and intent was inspiring but it also seemed like a missed opportunity to encourage people to focus on such broad, intangible intentions. If we know how much potential this simple IF/THEN technique has to offer, then why aren't we using it?
I returned to a draft of this article after reading a blog post by Jane Watson. She had recently been to the 2018 WorkHuman conference and shared some post-event commitments that sounded very different. They reminded me of the IF/THEN plan:
- When I feel vulnerable, I will take a breath and practice gratitude (from Brene Brown’s keynote)
- When I feel pressure to jump to action, I’ll remember to “hurry up and take my time” and seek sustainable change, not a band-aid (from Tarana Burke on the #MeToo panel)
- Before I give someone praise I’ll pause and check that it’s not a comparison to someone else (from Shawn Achor’s keynote)
Now, I can't say whether these pledges will more effective because they are aligned to an IF/THEN format. Context is king when it comes to behaviour so that claim would need evidence from a relevant randomised controlled trial. But from a personal perspective, I would certainly commit to following a similar format to Jane based on Gollwitzer's research: IF I set myself a goal, THEN I will use an IF/THEN Plan to implement my intentions. How's that for meta?
But as a consultancy, we don't need to stop there. Could we have designed an experiment to test the #PledgeForProgress format vs. the IF/THEN format as a means to elicit an inclusive behavioural outcome? Absolutely. Do I think the companies who asked people to share such pledges will want to explore the effectiveness of their campaigns, and learn how to improve them with empirical research?
Let's measure that one on behaviour over self-report.
To be continued!