How to Use ‘If-Then’ Intentions to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones

Photo by ajmal karayamuttam

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

Yes, Aristotle was right, excellence is not an act, but a habit. It’s reassuring to know that by changing our daily habits, we can chisel our life according to our design. But that’s easier said than done.

If you’ve ever tried to quit a bad habit or form a new one, you know the process is hard. But I believe we make the process harder than it has to be.

A common approach to habit change is goal setting. “I will exercise 3x a week” or “I will quit smoking.” Then we rely on motivation and willpower to do the work for us. You know how that turns out, right? We end up not doing it, feel guilty about it, and then call it a day thinking we just can’t do it.

Don’t fret. There’s a better way. And that way is what psychologist Peter Gollwitzer called implementation intentions or what I call simply “If-Then Training.

The application is simple — you make an exact plan about when, where, and how you will act to achieve your goal. Mark the word ‘exact’. The format of these intentions is based on cues — “When situation X arises, I will do Y (to achieve goal Z).

In the case of exercise, researchers found that motivation doesn’t affect behavior whatsoever. Everyone who resolves to exercise wants to get fit. But the people who made specific plans like “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE],” almost tripled their chances of success.

It’s absurd that we try to change our habits without figuring these basic details out. We say, “I’m going to eat healthier,” “write more,” “quit snacking in the afternoon,” and so on. When the time comes to do them, we think we lack motivation but what we lack is clarity.

As Gollwitzer explains, this failure to follow your own instructions, or to self-regulate, can manifest in one of two forms:

  1. You set a goal, but then you don’t get started on it:
    You don’t get started on a goal because you forget to do it (tracking your expenses), fail to seize the opportunity to act (because you don’t have an exact plan), and fall prey to distractions when the time comes to act on your goal.
  2. You set a goal and you get started on it, but then you get pushed off track:
    Perhaps you start eating healthier for a while but then get enticed by the bakery near your gym or just can’t help drinking a sugary Starbucks drink every morning or resort to unhealthy eating when engulfed in moods and negative emotions.

If-Then Training

To boil it down, the reasons we’re not able to break/build habits are often twofold — either we forget to do it, or we fall prey to distractions and laziness.

The best way to solve both these problems is to program your mind using if-then conditionals. Think of it as training your mind to do the desired action when you’re in a situation that you normally forget to do it in.

For instance, a common alternative to tackle smoking cravings is to chew gum. But in that emotional state of craving, we forget to do it. Our mood and emotions get the better of us.

To break this loop, we need to first form our if-then statement — “If I feel the urge to smoke while sitting on my desk in the afternoon, I will go for a walk outside and chew gum.”

And now for the most important part — visualize the situation. It’s not enough to make these statements but also to run them in your mind to prepare you for the real thing.

So close your eyes for a moment and visualize yourself in that situation. Taking our smoking example, feel that you’re tired from a meeting. Perhaps the presentation didn’t go as planned and you’re stuck with a lot of work. You feel stressed and think of smoking to ease the pain.

Then think of yourself getting up, shutting down your laptop, going out for a walk, and chewing gum for 15 minutes. Make the visualization as real as possible — feel the craving, the act of shutting your laptop, walking outside, the taste of the gum, and coming back.

By doing this, you’re essentially programming your mind in advance. Ergo, when the situation happens, you’re already programmed to do the right thing.

Building a new habit

We saw how if-then training can help you tackle bad habits. Let’s see how you can form good habits. First, as we learned above, write down an exact plan as to how you’ll perform the new habit. Say, it’s writing.

Most people say “I’ll write tomorrow morning.” Yeah, sure! I bet that strategy has a 100% failure rate. Now, let’s bring if-then training to the picture by linking writing with an already established habit.

Your plan should sound something like — “Every day after I make my coffee, I will sit down and write 200 words.”

If you want to start exercising, resolve that “When I go to my kitchen to have water, I will do 20 pushups.” It’s that simple.

And again, don’t forget to visualize and practice it in your mind repeatedly. With enough mental and real-life training, you’ll be compelled to perform your new habits just as easily as you do your bad ones!

The Power of Environmental Design

Along with If-Then training also see how you can design your environment to support your goals.

Let’s take all the examples and charge them up with the power of environmental design. If you feel the urge to smoke, keep your cigarettes with a friend and tell him to not give them to you. Leave your lighter with another friend or just throw it away. The act of pleading for the cigarette, then asking someone to light it for you is enough resistance to forget about it. Of course, this is in addition to our if-then training of going for a walk as soon as you feel the urge.

I’ll give you a personal example. From June 2020 till now (11 months) I’ve published more than 220 articles. This is only because of my writing habit. I write every morning after taking a shower before doing anything else. So that’s my if-then logic.

To add to that, I do a few things that make it easier for me to achieve my goal:

  • Block all messaging and email apps.
  • Use Cold Turkey Writer if the urge for distractions is too high.
  • Not check any updates or take any calls whatsoever before I get my writing done.
  • I plan my articles in advance to reduce resistance and avoid getting distracted by research

Using this method I’m able to write almost 1000+ words every morning, 4–6 days a week

Final Thoughts

There are hundreds of methods to build or break habits. But for me, if-then intentions are one of the easiest and creative ways to go about it.

I love it also because it helps me analyze the cues and triggers of my habits to understand how they work instead of blindly copying a technique I found on the web.

If-then training builds your problem-solving skills which guarantee that you can change almost any habit by breaking it down. You don’t need to apply different strategies for different habits, for this one alone is often enough.

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By Shivendra Misra on May 5, 2021.

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Exported from Medium on April 29, 2022.

Written on May 5, 2021