The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management, a program of the Institute for Lifelong Weight Management – teaching you the skills you need to keep the weight off forever!
Making contingency (“if-then”) plans has great benefits and can help you change your habits. It’s a powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (for example, “If it is 3 pm, then I will stop what I’m doing and do a 2-minute meditation”) can double or triple your chances for success.
How effective are these plans? Well, one study looked at people whose goal was to exercise regularly. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (for example, “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will go for a 30-minute before work each day”). The results were remarkable: months later, 91% of the if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39% of the people who had not used this technique. In fact, a recent literature review of 94 studies that used this technique found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, including buying organic foods, being kinder to others, avoiding alcohol use and smoking, weight loss, recycling, and better time management.
“Implementation Intention” is a fancy term for if-then planning. The concept was developed by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer in the mid 90’s. If-then plans take the form: “If X happens, then I will do Y”. For example: “If I walk into the lunchroom on a Friday and see a box of donuts, I will immediately head for the water cooler at the other end of the hall”.
The reason these plans are so effective is that they’re written in the language of the brain – the language of contingencies. We’re especially good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our actions, often without conscious awareness.
Once we develop our if-then plans, our unconscious brain starts monitoring our environment, looking for the event or situation in the “if” part of the plan. This enables us to stop and seize the moment (“Oh, it’s 3pm. Time for the 2-minute meditation”), even when we are busy doing something else.
Since we’ve already decided exactly what to do, we can carry out the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time trying to decide what to do next. Sometimes this is a conscious process and we actually realize we’re carrying out our plan. But it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means our desired actions can get carried out even when we’re busy doing something else.
If we’re thinking about a vague (or non-specific) habit change like “stop making unhealthy food choices,” we’ll benefit from identifying whatever it is that triggers us to make unhealthy food choices and creating a series of if-then plans for how we’ll address those triggers.
Here are some examples:
- If I go to the mall, then I will take some fruit with me and avoid going near the store that sells the chocolate truffles I crave.
- If my office manager brings in donuts on Friday, then I will avoid the lunchroom till the donuts are all gone.
- If I go to happy hour with my co-workers, then I will sip sparkling water.
- If I go out to dinner with my friends, then I will order grilled chicken with steamed veggies and ask that the bread basket remain on the other side of the table.
- If I am feeling anxious or stressed, then I will do some deep breathing until I feel calmer.
Do you get the idea?
The point behind an if-then plan is to create plans for what you’ll do when specific situations arise.
For success with if-then planning, bear in mind these principles:
- Address only 1 habit at a time
- Track your successes and notice how you feel.
- Set a firm start date.
- If a strategy is not working, try another one.
Are you ready to spring forward with your health and wellness goals? Check out my time-limited 1:1 customized individual coaching offer here:
With your continued health in mind,
Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for Lifelong Weight Management
Creator, The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management
The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh® is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.