Want a Simple Way to Double or Triple Your Own Productivity? Here's How.

Very few of us are as productive as we could be. We want to be focused with laser-like precision on critical tasks and make the best, most efficient use of our time. Instead, we get distracted by coworkers, lost in our Inboxes, and too absorbed by unimportant aspects of a single project when we'd be better off turning our attention to other things.

Wanting to be more productive isn't enough to actually make you more productive. You need to find a way to deal effectively with the distractions, the interruptions, and the fact that there is just way too much on your plate. Fortunately, there is a very simple strategy that has been proven to do the trick.

If you've already read my book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, then 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 actions to reach your goal (e.g., "If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today") can double or triple your chances for success. Making if-then plans to tackle your current projects, or reach your 2011 goals, is probably the most effective single thing you can do to ensure your success.

If-then plans take the form:

If X happens, then I will do Y.

For example:

If I haven't written the report before lunch, then I will make it my top priority when I return.

If I am getting too distracted by colleagues, then I will stick to a 5 minute chat limit and head back to work.

If it is 2pm, then I will spend an hour reading and responding to important emails.

How effective are these plans? One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., "If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.") The results were dramatic: months later, 91% of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39% of non-planners!

A recent review of results from 94 studies that used the if-then technique found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, including monthly breast self-examination, test preparation, using public transportation instead of driving, buying organic foods, being more helpful to others, not drinking alcohol, not starting smoking, losing weight, recycling, negotiating fairly, avoiding stereotypic and prejudicial thoughts, and better time management.

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 if you are finding, day after day, that too many important tasks have gone unaccomplished, and you are looking for a way to introduce better habits of time management into your life, look no further: try making a simple plan. By starting each morning making if-thens to tackle the day's challenges, you won't actually be adding hours to your day, but it will certainly seem like you did.

Heidi's new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is available wherever books are sold. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson.

Not sure why you aren't reaching your goals? Try the Goal Troubleshooter Quiz.

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  • Henrik Kenani Dahlgren

    I often find my self in the third step of that If, then... i end up in the "or i could do this" But I have come to peace with myself being a "procrastinator" and I have learned to handle it by keeping track of all my projects and tasks so I know that when I don't want to do the presentation slides, I can jump to my time reporting or my expense report, and when that is not fun anymore I check Fastcompany or Techcrunch .... and when those articles feels booring I'll just jump right back to that slide pack I was working on before...

    Important notes are: Keep track, spend some "me-time" every day, love your work.


  • David Kaiser, PhD


    I saw a similar article you wrote in Psychology Today for February, and now I am really curious about your work. On thing I was thinking about was reflecting upon the THEN part. I assume there needs to be a way to evaluate if the action you take as a result of the condition actually gets you what you want. I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Dave Kaiser, Ph.D., A.C.C.
    Time Management Coach & C.E.O.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Chris, good point. Sometimes, however, we allow ourselves to be distracted simply because we don't know what to do. Your co-worker comes over to chat and you just let it happen. Or you sit down at your desk, get overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, and freeze up (then go to FaceBook). The If-Then plan helps to resolve that problem, making it "easier" to be "disciplined."

    Now, there may be other problems with if-then. Fear of failure or fear of success may keep you from executing on the "then" part even when you know what to do, that's a whole 'nuther game, but that can be solved in other ways.

    Dave Kaiser, Ph.D., A.C.C.
    Time Management Coach & C.E.O.

  • Chris Reich

    I know someone who desperately needs help in this area but it seems that someone easily distracted would also lack the self discipline to execute "then" part. If one allows a co-worker to chat away important time, how will that same person impose the "then" limiting the interruptive chat to 5 minutes?

    I'll see if I can get this concept accepted and working...

    Chris Reich