2 Magic Words

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“May I have some more ice cream?”

“What’s the magic word?”

“Please, may I have some more ice cream?”

I’ve been on both sides of that conversation. I’ve been the kid who wanted more ice cream and I’ve been the parent who suggested it was possible if only the asker would use the magic word, “Please.” I learned, and my kids learned, and most of us learned that we’re more likely to get what we want if we use the magic word. But, what if you want something other than ice cream?

What if you want to lose 30 pounds, or spend more time with your family, or write a book this year? Powerful as it is, the word please is not enough. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are two magic words that can help you achieve what you want to achieve if you use them together. Those words are “if” and “then.”

NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer reviewed the results from 94 studies that measured the effect of if-then planning. It didn’t seem to matter what the goal was, if the person with the goal used if-then planning, he or she was more likely to hit it.

If-Then Planning

If-then planning is simple. Gollwitzer phrases it this way: “If situation x is encountered, then I will perform behavior y.”

Let’s say part of your plan for losing that weight is to go jogging every day. You think about your schedule and then you make an if-then plan: “If it’s 4:00 pm on a weekday, then I will go jogging for at least 20 minutes.”

Instant Habits

Gollwitzer has called if/then plans “instant habits.” Those little if-then plans do the same thing that habits do. They eliminate the need for us to decide what we’re going to do in specific situations. That conserves our precious decision-making energy for other things. Those if-then plans are also automatic, so they conserve willpower along with brainpower.

In her book, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Heidi Grant-Halverson says that “Studies show that if-then planners are more likely to be tenacious in the face of even unexpected obstacles.”

If-Then Planning for Contingencies

No matter how good your planning is and no matter how strong your willpower is, you’re still at the mercy of the world. As the saying goes, “Stuff happens.”

When it comes to achieving your goals, you can create if-then plans for obstacles that you can foresee. Remember that jogging goal? What are you going to do if it rains? Maybe you’ll decide that if it rains, you’ll go to the gym and spend an hour on the treadmill. Or maybe you’ll decide that if it rains, you’ll throw on your short rain jacket and go for a run. Either way, the planning in advance has taken the drama, delay, and vacillation out of the incident.

If-Then Planning for The Long Game

Your if-then planning can help you be prepared for things that are not your normal routine. We said that if it rained, one of our options was to throw on our short rain jacket and go for a run. If you have that short rain jacket, it’s easy to follow through on that, but if you don’t, your if-then plan will alert you to the fact that you need some rain gear to wear so you can run in the rain.

Stay Calm and Execute the Plan

It turns out that if-then planning can also help you prepare to remain calm in an emergency. Think of them as simple contingency plans. Sometimes these kinds of plans don’t use the words if-then, instead they use “What if?”

When I studied top-performing police sergeants, mental rehearsal and “What if?” planning were two things that they all did. When a crisis hits, the normal human response is to act like a little, furry forest creature when it senses a tiger is near. Your body gets ready to fight or to flee, and when it does that, it moves blood from your brain to major muscle groups. That’s great for stamina and running speed, but the blood has to come from somewhere. Blood floods out of your brain, which makes it hard to think clearly. That’s why the time to think about potential crises is before they happen.

“What if?” thinking about potential emergencies can help you stay calm act sensibly if they happen. What will I do if our smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night?

Bottom Line

If-then and “What if?” planning are tools you can use to be more successful. Use them to create instant habits that increase your possibility of success. Use them to figure out additional things you need to do but haven’t thought of yet. Use them to prepare for emergencies.


Heidi Grant Halverson’s book, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, has an entire chapter on if-then planning.

Eric Barker covers if-then planning briefly in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Between Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

Ryan Holiday discusses this kind of planning as a way to manage expectations in his book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.

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