Small change can make a big difference in your life

Every day, in some way or other, I fail to keep one of my goals. It could be something simple like not getting my sleep in check or failing to keep to my youtube schedule. Or it could be that I didn’t confront this person about an important issue. That’s okay. We shouldn’t expect a 100% success rate at everything. But, we should expect to get better at it. So, what small change can make a big difference in achieving your goal? Well, in psychology there’s one tip that stands out in terms of uniqueness and the amount of scientific backing. It’s called implementation intentions aka the “if-then” plan. Here’s how it goes. Normally, when we have a goal, we tend to think about it like this. “I want to achieve X”. So I want to be healthier or I want to have more money The implementation intention is only a small tweak to this. It goes, “If situation Y happens, then I will do X”. So “if it’s 7am on Monday, then I will jog outside for 30mins” or “when I get my pay check, then I will first put 10% into saving” Notice how the goals suddenly got a lot more practical. The key is to hinge your desired action on a situational cue such as a certain time, a location or an event. Now, this only takes a few minutes to write up. Yet, the research behind it is quite convincing. A meta-analysis of 94 different studies (83 experimental, 11 correlational) found that having an if-then plan significantly improved participant’s success rates across a variety of goals. Just to name a few, it’s helped people exercise more, be more environmentally friendly and better cope with fear. I’ve linked these studies in the description. Surprisingly, it even helps drug addicts with withdrawal to focus on everyday tasks. But why does it work? Well, for one, the if-then plan means that you’re now looking out for situational cues. As a result, you become more aware of opportunities in your surroundings. But most importantly, this plan guides you at your critical moments. These are the times when you need to just do it. Like when you wake up and are deciding between going back to sleep or going to gym. Here, the implementation intention gives a very clear, very straight-forward direction. It’s 7am so you have to exercise. This type of certainty about what to do makes it easier for us to carry through with our plans. Now there are 3 ways of making the if-then plan more effective. Firstly, be specific and realistic about the cues and behaviours in your if-then plan. This just ties onto the last point about having a clear path to follow. Secondly, yes, the if-then plan has been shown to be useful on average. However, it’s effectiveness will obviously still vary depending on your goal. For example, there’s lots of evidence that it helps with exercise goals. However, it’s not so helpful at breaking bad habits. So google “implementation intention + your goal” to see what the evidence looks like. But, the best thing you can do is to pair them with coping plans. Coping plans are the specific things you plan to do when you encounter an obstacle. In fact, they follow the exact format as the if-then plan. “If obstacle Y occurs, then I will do X to overcome it.” So let’s say your goal was to exercise more. One of your coping plans might be “if I’m feeling tired, then I only have to force myself to step outside my house in fitness gear.” The point is, it’s fun to talk about our goals. What’s not as fun is being realistic and figuring out what obstacles we’ll have deal with. This is where coping plans come in. As proof, researchers used these plans to get cardiac patients exercising. Here’s the results. This is how much exercise the control subjects did. Here’s what you get with implementation intentions. And here’s what you get with the added coping plans. That’s pretty much a doubling of exercising compared to the control. The best part is, when you measure how serious they were about exercising, each group had the same level of intention. These participants all had heart problems and just came out of rehab as well. They all desperately wanted to be healthier people. Yet, it was the if-then and coping plans that ultimately turn these goals into action. Action plans and coping plans for physical exercise: A longitudinal intervention study in cardiac rehabilitation Now, this stuff won’t propel you to a 100% success rate. But it will give you a boost when you’re lacking willpower. So if you ever need a kick start, write down an if-then plan.

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