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.