HR & Personal Development

How to use if-then planning to reach your goals

How to use if-then planning to reach your goals

You probably know the feeling – it’s something that typically happens right after New Year’s, but it also occurs throughout the year: Once again you have to admit that you cannot follow up on your New Year’s resolution. You are not going to lose 5 kg or learn to play the guitar or bake all your bread yourself.

And you are not alone. It’s a problem we all have. Research show that it is actually no more than 50 % of our projects that we are able to complete. Even if it’s something we really want.

But there are still people who manage to achieve things, you may think. People who lose weight. People who learn to play the guitar or bake lots of bread. And yes, you’re absolutely right. Some people are able to complete their plans and goals. But what is it that makes the difference? No, it’s not sheer willpower or motivation, in fact research claims that it is something entirely different. Luckily for us, there is a method that we can all use.


A new way of making habits

So I would recommend that you continue reading if you have something you just can’t finish or uphold. Because researches actually promise that this method can increase your chances of reaching your goal with no less than 300 %.

And this is not even a difficult method. It is called if-then planning.

Throughout recent years there has been a fair share of research concerning if-then planning and the results are, as mentioned, promising. One of the people who have examined the method is Heidi Grant. She is, among other things, a Senior Scientist at the NeuroLeadership Institute of Columbia University and she has described the method in Harvard Business Review.

The model is basically about hacking the way we produce habits. As Heidi Grant finishes by saying, if-then planning allows us to do more of what we want “… by fostering ownership and essentially reprogramming people to execute”.


How to “reprogram” yourself to execute

It is actually rather simple. Follow these four steps:

  1. Have a goal
  2. Divide it into subgoals
  3. Consider activities, who, when and where
  4. Make an if-then plan: If X happens, I will do Y

Below you can see a visual presentation of the method. Afterwards we will go through how you actually make it happen


Set goal

Break into subgoals

Detailed action


Who, when, where

If-then plan

[Insert overall goal]

[Insert subgoal 1]

[Insert action 1]


[Insert who, when, where]

[Insert if-then plan 1]

[Insert subgoal 2]

[Insert action 2]


[Insert who, when, where]

[Insert if-then plan 2]

[Inset subgoal 3]

[Insert action 3]


[Insert who, when, where]

[Insert if-then plan 3]


As mentioned, the method consists of four steps:

  1. You begin at the left side of the model by listing the goal you want to achieve. (In order to make better/good goals you can, for instance, read this tool).
  2. Then consider which subgoals you must complete for your general goal to be actualized. It’s okay to have more than three if they are relevant. Write them down.
  3. Third step is to think about which specific and tangible action is needed to complete every subgoal. Remember to write down who has to do what and when and where.
  4. In the end you make your if-then plans. Based on your already articulated activities you create a specific if-then plan, such as: “If it’s 2 o’clock pm the first Friday of the month, I will send my report to my boss.”


The way you articulate the if-then plan may seem strange and unnecessarily difficult. For instance:

“If (time) then (action), (who) (where)”.

But having it seem contrived and artificial is actually an important point of the method, because it makes you pay more attention to it. Also remember that the way you usually articulate rarely works.

It may be a bit difficult to imagine how to use the method in practice. In the following example you can see how a team is able to use the method to improve their internal communication.


Goal: Improve team communication


Subgoal 1: Identify where communication fails


Activity for subgoal 1:

Action: Gather feedback on problem areas among coworkers

Who-when-where? Head of HR, the beginning of the month


If-then plan subgoal 1:

If it’s the 1st of the month, I (Head of PR) will send propositions on how we can improve the communication



Subgoal 2: Create new possibilities for communication between leaders and coworkers


Activity for subgoal 2:

Action: Make a quick weekly status report

Who-when-where? All coworkers, every Friday morning, delivered before noon


If-then plan subgoal 2:

If it’s Monday morning, I (all coworkers) will make a résumé of my progress in current projects and deliver it before noon



Subgoal 3: Minimize amount of information among team members


Activity for subgoal 3:

Action: Stop the habit of automatically forwarding e-mails

Who-when-where? All coworkers, when e-mails are forwarded


If-then plan 3:

When I (all coworkers) forward e-mails, I will include a short statement at the top which explains what it is and why I am forwarding this mail.



If you insert your goal of losing 5kg instead, your first subgoal could for instance be:


Subgoal: Train every Sunday

Activity: Run in the forest every Sunday before breakfast

If-then plan: If it’s Sunday morning, I will begin my day by putting on my running clothes and then run in the forest.