The Science of Success

How we can all achieve our goals

Trying to Reach a Goal? You're Doing It Wrong

This common strategy we use to rid ourselves of bad habits usually backfires.

I am a big fan of planning. I constantly sing its praises. But while no one is particularly surprised to hear that planning is a good thing to do, they are usually surprised to learn that the plans they have been making have been pretty much useless.

Most plans are not structured in a way that makes them effective. If-then plans, however, are — and making them 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 steps to reach your goal (e.g., "If I am hungry and want a snack, then I will choose a healthy option like fruit or veggies,") can double or triple your chances for success.

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But once you've decided to make an if-then plan, the next thing you need to do is figure out what goes in it. And this is where, once again, it's very easy to screw up. According to recent research one particular type of plan can backfire — leaving you doing more of whatever you were trying to avoid doing in the first place.

Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands looked at three types of if-then plans. Replacement plans do just what the name suggests — replace a bad habit with a good one. If you are trying to do a better job controlling your temper and stop yourself from flying off the handle, you might create an if-then replacement plan like "If I am starting to feel angry, then I will take three deep breaths to calm down." By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your bad habit gets worn away over time until it disappears completely.

Ignore if-then plans are focused on blocking out unwanted feelings — like cravings, performance anxiety, or self-doubts. ("If I have the urge to smoke, then I will ignore it.") In this case, you are simply planning to tune out unwanted impulses and thoughts, in order to diminish their effect on you.

Finally, negation if-then plans involve spelling out the actions you won't be taking in the future. With these plans, if you have a habit you want to break, you simply plan not to engage in that habit. ("If I am at the mall, then I won't buy anything.") This is, in a sense, the most straightforward and head-on way of addressing a bad habit, and the one we most often end up using.

All three types of if-then plans were put to the test, with surprising and consistent results. The researchers found that negation if-then plans were not only far less effective compared to other plans, but that they sometimes resulted in a rebound effect, leading people to do more of the forbidden behavior than before.

Just as research on thought suppression (e.g., "Don't think about white bears!") has shown that constantly monitoring for a thought makes it more active in your mind, negation if-then plans keep the focus on the suppressed behavior. Ironically, by simply planning not to engage in a bad habit, the habit gets strengthened rather than broken.

Remember that when it comes to reaching your goals and avoiding temptation, you need to plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves. Ask yourself, What will I do instead? The answer to this simple question could mean the difference between another year of setbacks and disappointments, and the real, lasting change you been looking for.

 

 

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier in 2012, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Trying to figure out where you go wrong when it comes to reaching your goals? Check out the free Nine Things Diagnostics.

  

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

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