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If-then planning: How to boost your chances of successfully changing your behaviour

In our previous blog post we introduced SMART goals. After these are developed, it is time to implement steps that will help you achieve those goals. After all, as French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, A goal without a plan is just a wish.

What is if-then planning?

If-then plans, also known as ‘implementation intentions’, specify when, where, and how you will achieve that goal.

According to the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change, the idea behind if-then planning is that you identify situations that are usually associated with the behaviour you are trying to change and then specify a response that is designed to overcome your usual habits in these situations. 

For example, if you are trying to reduce your alcohol consumption and you always go to the pub for lunch on Friday, a relevant if-then plan might be “If it’s lunchtime on Friday, then I will go to the café”.

If you are trying to quit smoking but always end up smoking when drinking with a particular group of friends, a relevant if-then plan might be “If I am going out with my friends who smoke, then I will pick a place that does not allow smoking” or “If I am going out with my friends who smoke, then I will suggest going for brunch”.

If-then planning can lead to new behaviour 

If-then planning can also help you identify situations that you can link to engagement in a new behaviour. For example, if you have been taught a new technique in therapy and need to practice this technique between sessions, a relevant if-then plan might be “If it’s 7pm, then I will practice worry postponement”.

If your goal is to be more mindful, a relevant if-then plan might be “If I am brushing my teeth, then I will practice mindfulness”.

If your goal is to improve your sleep, a relevant if-then plan might be “If it’s after 3pm, then I will have water instead of coffee”.

If your goal is to be more productive, a relevant if-then plan might be “If it’s 10am, then I will shut down my emails for an hour so I can focus on other work without distraction”.

If your goal is to improve your relationships, a relevant if-then goal might be “If it’s lunchtime, then I will contact a friend/family members/my partner to check in”.

If-then plans boost your chances of successfully changing your behaviour because they link a cue to a behaviour and, in doing so, they increase our ability to detect that cue. Basically, you become more aware of when it is 7pm so you can practice your worry postponement. 

And that’s if-then planning! Take a look at the goals you have set with your psychologist and see what if-then plans you can make to help boost your chances of success. If you aren’t sure if you are doing if-then planning correctly, your therapist can help.

Written by Dr Michelle Jongenelis, Clinical Psychologist
Senior Research Fellow, Melbourne Centre for Behaviour ChangeMelbourne School of Psychological Science.

More information

If you would like to learn more about goal setting or to book an appointment with Dr Michelle Jongenelis or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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