This ‘if-then’ rule can help you build better habits

It’s a simple strategy, but research shows ‘if-then’ plans can significantly improve your odds of achieving your health-related goals. Learn how to make it work.

If you’ve tried relying on willpower alone to refuse that donut or cut back on your takeaway-for-dinner habit, you probably know how hit-and-miss it can be.

Enter “if-then planning”.

Technically known as implementation intentions, while goal setting to, say, quit eating donuts doesn’t guarantee success on its own, what does work is planning that “if” I get offered a donut, “then” I’ll reach for an apple.

Putting the theory to the test, research shows that women enrolled in a weight-loss program who established an “if-then” plan lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t.

“By establishing a concrete cue to act, an if-then plan works by helping the brain pick up on a situation where you want to change your behaviour,” Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change deputy director Dr Michelle Jongenelis says.

“And the more you repeatedly respond to the cue with a new action or behaviour, the more likely that action is to become a habit.”

Breaking habits isn’t the only thing an if-then plan is good for

If-then planning can also help you build brand new healthy habits, too.

For example research shows it’s effective if you want to exercise more, perhaps by establishing that “if my morning alarm goes off, then I’ll go for a walk”.

It can even be used to prevent an unhealthy habit in the first place.

One UK study found a simple if-then program designed to build teenagers’ resilience to say “no” to smoking worked, with 20 per cent fewer students trying a cigarette thanks to the program.

“For example, a student might plan that if his friend Callum offers him a cigarette on the way home, then he will say ‘No thanks, it messes with my asthma’,” University of Leeds professor Mark Conner says.

Research has also shown how effective if-then planning can be for lifting participation rates in vaccination and cancer screening programs, as well as adhering to social distancing during Covid.

The more you repeatedly respond to the cue with a new action or behaviour, the more likely that action is to become a habit.

How to make if-then planning work

For starters, an if-then plan has to be something you’re motivated to do.

“The two things – the plan and the motivation – are pre-requisites for each other,” Dr Jongenelis says.

“You won’t establish an if-then plan without being motivated, and your motivation is unlikely to result in achieving your goals if you don’t have an if-then plan in place.”

The following tips will also help you get the most out of an if-then plan.

1. Practice makes perfect

“You have to perform an action in response to the cue you’ve chosen, regularly and routinely when you encounter that cue, in order for it to become habitual,” Dr Jongenelis says.

If that’s difficult, question why.

“You might come up with an if-then plan that’s challenging in reality due to external forces,” she says.

“It can be a bit of trial and error to start with.”

2. Monitor your progress

“It’s important to check-in regularly to monitor how it’s going,” Dr Jongenelis says.

“Otherwise you can’t know whether what you’re doing is working, not working, or how well it’s working.

“If you’ve done well, reward yourself and perhaps make the goal more challenging so you can keep progressing.

“And if you haven’t done so well, consider what you need to do to adjust things.”

3. Don’t get hung up on timeframes

Research says a lot of things about how many days or months habits take to form, but Dr Jongenelis suggests ignoring it all.

“Habit formation depends on the individual, but also the behaviour you’re trying to change or adopt,” she says.

“So sticking to ‘rules of thumb’ around how long it should take can be really unhelpful because if you don’t hit that mark, you’ll probably just give up.”

Written by Karen Fittall.