The Power of Planning

Peter M. Gollwitzer, New York University

Everyone has bad habits. You snack when distressed or you drink too much alcohol when relaxing with friends. You create unnecessary stress by letting the social media distract you from completing pressing work projects, or by getting into unnecessary arguments with colleagues, friends, and family. How can you change these bad habits?

Many people might tell you that you simply have to commit to the goal of stopping these bad but common habits, and down the road – if you just try hard enough – you will get rid of them. However, extensive research in the science of motivation has shown that there is a wide disparity between having the goal of controlling one’s bad habits and actually doing so. This is true for bad habits relating to all domains of life including health, work, and one’s social life. So what can you do to reduce these gaps?

In my research in the US and in Germany on the self-regulation of goal pursuit, I discovered that people should make plans on how to implement their goals. The most effective plans are those that specify when, where and how you want to act on your goals by using an IF-THEN format. Take drinking too much in the company of your friends as an example. In the IF part of the plan, you identify the critical situation that usually triggers your bad habit. Perhaps the trigger is being offered a drink by your friends. In the THEN part, you specify an action that can halt accepting the offer such as responding to it by saying that you prefer a glass of water today. And then you link the IF and the THEN part together by making an IF-Then plan: “IF on Friday after work my colleagues invite me to go for a drink, THEN I will answer: I want to go home and spend time with my family today!”

Sounds too simple? Well, an endless line of studies published in peer-reviewed journals conducted with children, adults, and old to very old people around the world have shown that IF-THEN plans significantly increase the rate of goal attainment. This is true for goals in the health, achievement and interpersonal domain, for people from different cultural and social backgrounds, and even for people who have problems with self-regulation in general (e.g., children with ADHD, people who suffer from addictions, frontal lobe patients).

How can simple IF-THEN plans be so effective in achieving behavior change? In laboratory experiments, we discovered that these plans make performing the behavior specified in the THEN part much easier when the critical situation is encountered. The person no longer has to tell herself that she wants to break a bad habit and then try hard to do so. Rather, encountering the critical situation specified in the IF part triggers the pre-planned response in a fast, effortless, and incidental manner. Because the IF-THEN plan delegates the initiation of the planned response to the specified critical situation, it is taken out of the hands of the person who – as a consequence – no longer has to play the role of the willful “controller” of her actions. Instead, the person now makes a pre-programmed, almost automatic response.

Recommendations for Practice

It is not difficult to learn to make good IF-THEN plans. You only have to detect the personal critical situations that trigger your bad habits, and you have to identify those behaviors that you can and want to perform instead of the habitual ones. Gabriele Oettingen, a colleague at New York University, has developed a self-regulation strategy called WOOP (which stands for Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan) that entails four steps helping you to specify the IF part and the THEN part of an IF-THEN plan. More specifically, the first step entails explicating your Wish to overcome a certain bad habit, and the second step, to image vividly how it would feel to experience the best Outcome of having realized your wish. Then, in a third step, you ask yourself what it is in you that hinders you to move forward with realizing your wish: What is the personal Obstacle that holds you back? Once you have found this inner obstacle and explored it by using mental imagery you can move on to the fourth step. You make an IF-THEN Plan that puts the discovered obstacle in the IF part and an instrumental action to overcome this obstacle in the THEN part; you complete the fourth step of WOOP by enacting your IF-THEN plan in front of your mind’s eye. Done!

So if you do not want to fall prey to your bad habits or want to teach others how to best protect themselves from acting on bad habits, make the following IF-THEN plan: “IF I find a moment of quiet time today, THEN I will visit and learn how to use WOOP!” You may even download the WOOP App. This App is for free and will become your best friend in your efforts to meet your goal of changing your bad habits or help other people to meet that goal.