“If-then” plans

“If-then” plans are an effective way of helping to achieve goals, especially when faced with temptation, a bad mood, lethargy, anxiety and depression.

Theory of Planned Behaviour

Ajzen’s (1985) Theory of Planned Behavior demonstrates that good intentions can have quite strong effects on behavior. Strong intentions(e.g., “I strongly intend to do x”) are reliably observed to be realized more often than weak intentions.

However, we need to accept that our willpower of the average person has its limitations and plan accordingly.

“If-then” Implementation Plans

If-then plans Gollwitzer 1999, in which a person commits themselves to doing a certain thing in a specific situation  are commonly used in health psychology. Making “if-then” plans is more than just deciding what steps you need to take; it is also about deciding where and when you will take them. These are self-made plans which state that if a certain situation occurs, then I will respond in a pre-specified way.

Examples of “If-then” plans

  • If it’s 7 p.m. and I am at home, I will do my exercises.
  • If I have not heard back from PJ  by the end of the day, then I will call him at 10am tomorrow.
  • If it is 1pm, then I will stop what I’m doing and begin work on my assignment.
  • If my mum doesn’t mention my birthday before I’m ready to go, then I will bring it up before I leave the house
  • If I have rowed 10 good strokes, then row 10 more!
  • If I feel like a glass of wine, then I will drink a glass of water.


By deciding, in advance, the details of what you are going to do, when and where you are going to do it, using these plans radically reduces the demands you place on your willpower. “If-then” planning has been recognised in over 100 studies to be highly effective when it comes to resisting temptation and forming good habits, increasing your chances of reaching your goal by up to 300%


Beating Bad-Mood Risks

A team led by Thomas Webb at the University of Sheffield has used the If-then planning idea as a social anxiety intervention. Webb says that we can protect ourselves from the risky effects of negative moods and arousal by forming ‘if-then’ implementation decisions in advance.


An example of an if-then plan: ‘If I am in a negative mood, then I will … breathe deeply / think only positive thoughts / think how I’ve dealt successfully with previous situations’ (they could choose which ending to use). The idea is to repeat this aloud three times during the week. Research found that students who’d made the if-then implementation plans during the prior week seemed to have been inoculated from the effects of negative moods on increased risk-taking.


The team found that the use of a distracting “if-then” plan ( i.e. if I feel anxious I will focus on the back wall) severed the link between anxiety levels and performance.

How do if-then plans exert their protective effects? Webb and his colleagues can’t be sure, but they think they help form strong links between specific circumstances (e.g. when in a bad mood) and responses (e.g. breathe deeply) thereby making those responses easier to enact.

Teach Children how to make if-then plans

As these plans are so simple and effective, we should be teaching them to children. These plans could start with the simple, “If I am stuck on a word, then I will ask my friend”, “If I am missing my Mum, then I will hum a little tune to myself”, “If someone is trying to get me to misbehave, then I will say that I need to go and get a drink”.


Parks-Stamm,E.,  Gollwitzer,P. & Oettingen,G. (2009) Implementation intentions and test anxiety: Shielding academic performance from distraction. Learning and Individual Differences, 20, 30-33.

Bayer, U.C.,   Achtziger, A.,  Gollwitzer, P.M. and  Moskowitz, G.B. (2009) Responding to Subliminal Cues: Do if-then plans facilitate action preparation and initiation without conscious intent? Social Cognition, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2009, pp. 183–201

Now Read: Putting Teachers First

Image Credits: Davichi



Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>