If I read this blog post, then I will get things done

If-then thinking encourages your brain to make logical, step-by-step decisions. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

If-then thinking encourages your brain to make logical, step-by-step decisions. (photo courtesy Igor Kisselev on Shutterstock)

Long-term projects often take a back burner when life’s all-star distractions—our livelihoods, chores, and loved ones—demand our attention.

One way to work more efficiently if there are a lot of other things on your mind is to use if-then planning, a prioritization system that asks you to plan—in advance—the conditions under which you will take a specific action.

This kind of planning breaks down big tasks and creates a manageable schedule with built-in wiggle room as your plans develop. Tasks become tangible, reasonable, much more doable. Here are some examples:

If my volunteer doesn’t respond to my email by 4:00 p.m., then I will try calling her.

If I haven’t finished my donor letter by Wednesday, then I will do it on Thursday before my shift starts.

If it is the first Monday of the month, then I will spend one hour planning my meetings for the week.

If-then planning is a very effective method for getting stuff done. One study shows that subjects who used if-then thinking were two to three times more likely to accomplish their goals than their regular “to do” list counterparts.

A recent 99U article by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center explores why this kind of thinking works so well:

Why are these plans so effective? Because they are written in the language of your brain—the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness.

Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. This enables you to seize the critical moment (“Oh, it’s 4pm! I’d better return those calls”), even when you are busy doing other things.

Since you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time deliberating what you should do next. (Sometimes this is conscious, and you actually realize you are following through on your plan. The point is it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means your plans can get carried out when you are preoccupied with other things, and that is incredibly useful.)

So here goes: if you are struggling to get things done today, then you should try using if-then thinking to be more efficient.

What “if-then” plans will you make today? Share in the comments below.

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Comments (3)


  1. Karen E. Lund writes:
    October 10, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    IF I write a draft for next week’s blog post, THEN I will have some cookies.

    There’s motivation for you!

    But one of the best bits of news from this post is that there exists a Motivation Science Center. I’m feeling motivated to mosey over to their website and see if I can learn something.


  2. Rebecca Olson writes:
    October 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks, Karen! I think I WILL have some cookies.


  3. Amy writes:
    October 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Anyone know of any aps that would help us function this way…?


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