A simple technique to create an instant habit

A proven yet super simple technique to create new helpful habits (or ditch some pesky ones) is IF / THEN planning. If you’ve not heard of it before, listen up. It may help you (the reader of my blog) or more importantly, and the reason for this blog, it may help your students.


I love it because (a) it’s simple, (b) hundreds of controlled research studies has shown it works; and (c) I’ve personally put it to the test and it has worked a treat.


Usually, when someone has a pesky habit they’d like to ditch, they just don’t get specific enough. It will generally sound like this:

“I really want to stop drinking alcohol on weekdays”

“I’m going to avoid snacking during the week when I’m feeling bored”

“I need to drink more water during the day - yeah, I’m going to start doing that by putting a jug on my desk”


Your adult learners might sound like this:

“I’m going to try to study consistently each week so I don’t get behind”

“I’d like to still try to fit some exercise into my routine as well as my studies”

“I know that reviewing my study notes will help me learn more so I’m going to start doing this”


While they are all great in terms of “intention”, they sound … well, a bit loose or non-committal.


IF / THEN planning gets specific. IF I am in this situation, THEN this is the action/behaviour I’ll take. It’s that simple. Professor Peter Gollwitzer from NYU describes IF / THEN planning as “instant habits”. Once the IF part is detected, the mind triggers then THEN part.


In one controlled study, college students were asked to write an assignment and hand it in two days before the Christmas break. Half were asked to use IF / THEN planning to achieve this. So their IF / THEN plans may have sounded like this:

“IF it is Tuesday 12 December at 10am, THEN I’ll spend two hours on question one in my assignment”

“IF I have my laptop on and I’m writing my assignment, THEN I’ll switch off email so I’m not distracted”

“IF I feel a mental block when writing my assignment, THEN I’ll take a 10 minute break before starting again refreshed”

“IF it is Thursday 18 December, THEN I’ll submit my completed assignment”


The other half were not given instructions but simply told to hand in their assignment two days before the Christmas break.


72% of the students who used IF / THEN planning handed in their assignments two days before the Christmas break.

32% of the students who didn’t use IF / THEN planning handed in their assignments two days before the Christmas break.


There’s a link created between a situation (which is a cue) and a behaviour that follows. The cue is the reminder to take action. IF / THEN planning helps your brain automate the behaviour that follows.


How have I used IF / THEN planning? Here are a few ways:

  • IF I’m going to write a blog, THEN I’ll close my email (I’m easily distracted)

  • IF I’m in a 1:1 meeting with someone, THEN I’ll listen intently and be 100% present (this is just super important to my values)

  • IF I’m given the dessert menu at a restaurant, THEN I’ll order a tea (I love dessert but I really don’t like the feeling of over-indulgence)

  • IF I’m feeling stressed, THEN I’ll stop and gather my thoughts and put things in perspective (and if I can do this at the same time as going for a run then I’m over the moon)

If you’ve not tried it, give it a go. As Paul Kelly sang “from little things big things grow”. And so it is with habits. Ditch a few small pesky habits, and see the good juice spill over into many other parts of your life.