Al Pittampalli

Are You Persuadable?

100 Studies Show This Simple Technique Doubles Productivity

Asking just two simple questions can profoundly improve goal achievement.

Posted Jun 15, 2017

In 1997, a German social psychologist named Peter Gollwitzer conducted a study to test the effectiveness of a very simple productivity technique. The results were so good that you would swear it was a mistake. It wasn’t.

The study went like this: Gollwitzer recruited students on his university’s campus and asked them to write an essay while on Christmas break, detailing their holiday experience. They were to mail the essay back to him within 48 hours of Christmas.

But before they headed home for the holidays, Gollwitzer asked half the students to do one more thing: write down when and where they planned to work on the essay.

Shortly after Christmas, when Gollwitzer tabulated the results, he learned that of the students who didn’t write down when and where, only 32% successfully delivered their essay. The success rate of students who did write it down? A whopping 71%.

Answering two mundane questions more than doubled students’ chances of achieving their goal. How did such a simple exercise, one that took mere minutes, make such a dramatic difference?

Intentions are Not Enough

Whether it’s writing a screenplay, running a marathon, or delivering a client brief on time — we all have goals that seem to elude us no matter how desperately we want to achieve them. That’s because a strong desire, while necessary for goal achievement, is nowhere near sufficient.

In fact, as social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson explains in her wonderful book Succeed, according to numerous studies “about 70 to 80 percent of the time we have plenty of commitment, but we screw it up along the way.”

When it comes to reaching our goals, relying on intentions is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Our conscious will to succeed is no match for the potent distractions, temptations, and negative emotions that inevitably arise. [1]

On the other hand, asking when and where is, because it taps into the power of the unconscious.

Deciding when and where we’ll complete a task is an example of what psychologists call an implementation intention, a sort of mental programming whereby our brain links up a situational cue — in this case a particular time and location — with the behavior we want to perform. When the time and location arrives, the behavior is automatically triggered. [2]

So, for example, if one of the students in Gollwitzer’s study had decided he would work on his essay in his bedroom on Friday at 3pm, when the clock struck three, he might have found himself unconsciously compelled to start walking up to his room to begin his work, even if, at the time, he was preoccupied with other tasks or nagging negative emotions.

Of course, implementation intentions provide no guarantee we’ll reach our goals — after all, there were students in the when and where condition who failed to deliver the essay — but there are now close to 100 studies that show it dramatically improves our chances of succeeding at a wide range of goals, from eating healthier, to finding a job, to taking tests.

And while the benefits of implementation intentions are extraordinary, let’s not forget about its most remarkable feature: cost. Implementation intentions require no investment of money, no herculean effort, just a few minutes of time to think and write.

Think, what if this simple technique gave you the edge you needed to finally learn Spanish, or champion that new human resources initiative, or finish that standup comedy routine? It can and I challenge you to try it.

But don’t just casually accept my challenge. If you’ve learned one thing from this essay, simply intending to do anything — and implementation intentions are no exception — is just not enough. No matter how impressed you are with their utility, it’s easy to forget to use them in the busyness of our frenetic daily lives.

But what if there was a specific time and place each week where you could, together with others, in real-time, perform implementation intentions without ever leaving your computer? Fortunately, there is.

Introducing Pareto’s Place

Every Monday at 2PM EST I’m holding a free webinar via Facebook Live, available to anyone and everyone, where I’ll lead you through the process of forming implementation intentions. In each brief 10-minute session, you’ll get clear on what goal you’re committed to achieving, identify tasks you’ve been putting off, and decide when and where you’ll complete them.

Each subsequent week, we’ll celebrate our successes and learn from our failures. It promises to be the most rewarding ten minutes you spend each week.

So head on over to the Pareto’s Place Facebook Page at 2PM EST this Monday, where we’ll walk the walk, and make our goals a reality, one implementation intention at a time.

Al Pittampalli is the author of Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World (Harper Collins)


[1] Heidi Grant Halvorson points out that sometimes we do consciously engage in the behavior. “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.”

[2] For a richer account of why we fail to achieve our goals, read this article by Gollwitzer himself: