Regular readers of my blog, and of my new book SUCCEED, know that I am a big fan of planning. If-then planning, in particular, is a really 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 steps to reach your goal (e.g., “If I am hungry and want a snack, then I will choose a healthy option like fruit or veggies,”) can double or triple your chances for success. Making an if-then plan to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, or reach your 2011 goals, is probably the most effective single thing you can do to ensure your success.
But once you’ve decided to make an if-then plan, the next thing you need to do is figure out what goes in it. According to new research, you need to be very careful about what goes in your plan, because one particular type of if-then plan can backfire – leaving you doing more of whatever you were trying to avoid doing in the first place.
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands looked at three types of if-then plans. Replacement plans do just what the name suggests – replace a bad habit with a good one. If you are trying to do a better job controlling your temper and stop yourself from flying off the handle, you might create an if-then replacement plan like “If I am starting to feel angry, then I will take three deep breaths to calm down.” By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your bad habit gets worn away over time until it disappears completely.
Ignore if-then plans are focused on blocking out unwanted feelings – like cravings, performance anxiety, or self-doubts. (“If I have the urge to smoke, then I will ignore it.”) In this case, you are simply planning to tune out unwanted impulses and thoughts, in order to diminish their effect on you.
Finally, negation if-then plans involve spelling out the actions you won’t be taking in the future. With these plans, if you have a habit you want to break, you simply plan not to engage in that habit. (“If I am at the mall, then I won’t buy anything.”) This is, in a sense, the most straightforward and head-on way of addressing a bad habit, and probably the one we most often end up using.
All three types of if-then plans were put to the test, with surprising and consistent results. The researchers found that negation if-then plans were not only far less effective compared to other plans, but that they sometimes resulted in a rebound effect, leading people to do more of the forbidden behavior than before.
Just as research on thought suppression (e.g., “Don’t think about white bears!”) has shown that constantly monitoring for a thought makes it more active in your mind, negation if-then plans keep the focus on the suppressed behavior. Ironically, by simply planning not to engage in a bad habit, the habit gets strengthened rather than broken.
Remember that when it comes to reaching your 2011 goals, you need to plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves. Ask yourself, What will I do instead? The answer to this simple question could mean the difference between another year of broken New Year’s resolutions and the real, lasting change you been looking for.