How “If-Then” planning can boost self-control

In last week’s post (Marshmallow Test) I talked about the difference between hot and cool thinking. Hot thinking is our instant impulsive response to every situation, which favours instant gratification – giving in to temptation. Cool thinking is where we take time to consider the longer-term consequences of our actions. Cool thinking takes longer to kick in, usually has to be deliberately invoked, and uses an entirely different part of our brain – the frontal lobe, immediately behind the forehead.

control your cravings

Each of us has our own self-control hotspots – those situations which we find the most difficult. When I tried to give up smoking, it was the cigarette with a cup of coffee after a meal that was the most difficult to do without. We can cool down our cravings by thinking cooling thoughts, for example by contemplating all the dire government health warnings on the outside of the packet whenever we crave a cigarette.

But the cooling effect of cool thinking may not always be strong enough or fast-acting enough to deal with temptation. When confronted with a self-control “hotspot” we can improve our chances of success by using a simple technique called “If-Then Planning”.

A German psychologist called Peter Gollwitzer developed the concept of If-Then Planning in the 1990’s. He demonstrated that people who plan in advance how they will respond to a given situation achieve better outcomes. These plans are called if-then plans because they typically take the form of a simple if-then statement: “if this situation arises then I will respond as follows”.

In one study, a few days before Christmas he asked a group of university students to write a report on how they spent Christmas Eve, and he stressed that the report should be completed during the Christmas holidays. Half the group were additionally asked to specify when and where they intended to write their report, to visualize doing this, and to silently commit to carrying out this intention – in effect to create an if-then plan. The results were striking:

  • 71% of the students who created an if-then plan completed their assignment
  • Only 32% of the students with no plan completed their assignment
  • The students with an if-then plan completed the assignment on average within 2 days of Christmas Eve, compared to the students with no plan who took on average 8 days.


It seems that our brains are primed to remember and respond to these triggers. If a student had committed to write their report on Boxing Day, then when Boxing Day arrived that was enough to trigger the student to start writing their report.

The message is clear and has been borne out by other studies: the more we plan in advance how we will deal with self-control “hot-spots”, the more likely we are to succeed. In over a hundred studies, researchers have found that using this if-then technique typically doubles or triples the success rate.

If-Then Money Management

If-Then Planning can be useful in many aspects of our lives, including money management. Are you struggling to stick to your monthly budget? Try to identify the particular areas where you are regularly falling down, and formulate an If-Then Plan to strengthen your resolve.

Impulse purchases of things we don’t really need and haven’t budgeted for are one of the biggest budget-busters, but we can counter them by committing to an If-Then Plan in advance. For example, if I’m tempted to buy something on impulse, then I will:

  • Phone a friend and talk it over with them before I buy, or
  • Take a photo of the thing I want to buy, then wait until I get home when I can check on the internet if I can get it cheaper somewhere else.
phone a friend
phone a friend

These plans work by taking back control from our “hot” thinking, and creating space and time for our “cool” thinking to kick in. Positive plans are more effective than negative self-denying plans – “I will do something else instead” will work better than “I’ll just walk away”.

In time these planned if-then responses will become habits, like brushing our teeth, automatic responses to given situations. They are just another way of making money management easier for fallible humans like you and me. But don’t take my word for it – give it a try – formulate your very own if-then plan right now.

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