Even the highly effective among us are occasionally – perhaps even frequently – frustrated by wasted efforts, plans that come to nothing or missed opportunities that occur. Not because they were impossible dreams, but because the conditions for success did not fall into place.
Sometimes the stars just don’t align, but often the cause is down to the way we frame objectives. You may know the individual steps required to make progress on a given project, but unless you also know whose responsibilities they are, when they must occur and in response to what set of events, the likelihood that they will actually happen remains pretty low. This is where ‘if-then’ planning can help.
This approach involves specifying certain trigger situations and the actions they will precipitate. According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by psychologist Heidi Grant-Halvorson, studies show people who follow it are around 300% more likely to achieve goals.
HBR even has an online tool to help construct if-then goals. It begins with identifying the main aim, which is then split into sub-goals along with the details of who will carry them out, when and in what circumstances. HBR gives the example of improving team communication, for which one sub-goal might be to identify where communication is breaking down. The action is for the HR director to gather monthly feedback on problem areas.
The if-then plan for this particular sub-goal would be expressed as: “If it’s the first of the month, then I (the director of HR) will send out forms soliciting suggestions on how to improve communication.”
As Grant-Halvorson pointed out in a separate 2011 article in Psychology Today, the conditions you set for triggering actions become “highly activated” in your mind, which means you’re constantly attuned to them: “Below your awareness, your brain starts scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the ‘if’ part of your plan.”
As a result, objectives expressed in this way can be achieved almost automatically, since your brain learns to look out for the approaching ‘if’. Therefore if-then plans require less willpower to accomplish and become routine, saving your mental focus for other tasks requiring more conscious thought.