A Simple But Powerful Tactic to Resist Temptation and Build Good Habits

If you can double, even triple your chances for success with…

  • Resisting a croissant, cookie, or cake
  • Completing your fast without breaking it prematurely
  • Going for a walk, or physical activity instead of putting it off

… without needing more willpower or more motivation, would you do it?

It’s a tactic that’s been proven in over 94 scientific research studies. Here are 2 examples.

On willpower

In this study, 2 groups of hospitalized opiate drug addicts undergoing withdrawal were asked to complete a resume the end of the day.

In the group that did not use the tactic, not 1 person (zero) had done it. But the other group who did, had 80% of them completing a resume.

Wouldn’t you agree that both groups have the same depleted willpower since they’re all in the process of opiate withdrawal?

On motivation

In another study, 3 groups of people were asked to keep track of how many times they exercised over the next 2 weeks.

  • Group 1 was not motivated by the researchers, they read unrelated paragraphs of a novel.
  • Group 2 was motivated by the researchers, they read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise.
  • Group 3 was also motivated by the researchers, they read the motivational pamphlet – but they also used the tactic.

How many of them exercised at least once a week?

  • Group 1 (not motivated) 38%.
  • Group 2 (motivated) 35%.
  • Group 3 (tactical) 91%.

Note that motivation did not make a difference in exercise frequency between Group 1 and Group 2.

What is this tactic that makes motivation and willpower irrelevant?

The power of the words If, When, Then

They used a tactic called Implementation Intention.

Here’s the formula:

If/when I encounter situation “X” then I will perform behavior “Y”.

The successful groups had self-statements that looked like these:

The group on willpower. “When breakfast is over and there’s space on the cafeteria table, then I will start completing my resume there.”

The group on motivation. “When it’s Monday at 10 am, then I will jog for at least 20 minutes on the treadmill.”

I know what you’re thinking. It’s called planning, you’ve done this before, and it hasn’t worked for you.

Not your average plan

But this isn’t an ordinary plan. This type of planning has special elements proven to increase your likelihood to succeed by up to 3 times more.

Let’s break it down.

If/when “X” happens, then I will do “Y”.

If/when. Specify the time, or place, or situation your desired action will happen. Be explicit. This is your cue.

Then. State your desired action. What do you want to do?

Here’s an example:

  • This plan doesn’t cut it.“I plan to lose 5 pounds this month by cutting back on sugar.”
  • This plan does. “When I see a candy bar at the grocery store checkout line, then I will look away and turn to the magazine section.”  
A Jedi mind trick

“The if/when-then wording is designed to put us on high alert for a particular time or circumstance when a productive action could be performed. We become prepared, first to notice the favorable time or circumstance and, second, to associate it automatically and directly with desired conduct.”
~ Robert Cialdini, PhD, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

OK, so it doesn’t use the power of the Force. But its power to influence and persuade comes from tapping into the language of your brain. Your brain is proficient at encoding information in terms of “if x, then y.”

Here’s how it works:

First, the cue or situation (if/when) gets wired in your brain directly to the action (then). Next, your subconscious brain becomes hyper-vigilant to scanning the environment for the cue or situation. Lastly, when the cue or situation “if x” happens, the action “then y” launches automatically.

Staying on track, examples

“Plan [for] 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?”
~ Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals

  • When the restaurant server offers the dessert menu, then I will say no thanks and order black coffee.
  • When I feel a sweet craving, then I will drink mint tea.
  • When I feel a wave of hunger while fasting, then I will drink a full glass of water.
Getting back on track, examples

Because in the real world, life happens. You get busy, the unexpected occurs, and urgent matters pop up. Plan for them.

  • If I miss my morning-break walk, then I will walk during my afternoon-break.
  • If I eat pastry for breakfast, then I will eat a salad for lunch.
  • If I break my fast prematurely, then I will skip my next meal.
The easy first step

Willpower and motivation are unreliable. They’re fleeting because they’re subject to the ebb and flow of your feelings. Relying on them is a losing strategy especially when your goal is to be consistent.

The “if/when-then” tactic relies on the real world in which you live, because it uses cues and situations in your environment. It also relies on the subconscious and automatic processes of your brain, which allows you to act with less effort – even when you’re preoccupied.

Imagine how much closer you could get to your health goals.

The first step is to give it a try. Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Fill in the blanks and write down your plan. Just one.

If/when [time, or place, or situation], then I will [desired action].

That’s really all you have to do to make this tactic work for you. What have you got to lose? Just write it down. 

Isn’t it a lot harder to rely on willpower and motivation anyway?


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