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
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
plans take the form:
If X happens, then I will do Y.
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
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.
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.