If/When-Then Plans: Your Key to Conquering Hesitation

The “Godfather of Influence” and “Godzilla of Persuasion” has been a tried and true source on influencing others for close to 40 years, but persuasion is just as much about influencing yourself. Each one of us has within us a weaselly voice – the weaselly voice that will tell you to slink off of doing something “because excuse X.” Everyone has an Excuse Demon ticking and purring in their unconscious mind. It unfortunately can’t be eradicated, but how do you find ways to lower its volume? One of the best is through an option Robert Cialdini gives us – the if/when-then plan.

What is an if/when-then plan?

Let’s turn to Robert Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion:

They are designed to help us achieve a goal by readying us (1) to register certain cues in settings where we can further our goal, and (2) to take an appropriate action spurred by the cues and consistent with the goal. Let’s say that we aim to lose weight. An if/when-then plan might be “If/when after my business lunches, the server asks if I’d like to have dessert, then I will order mint tea.” Other goals can also be effectively achieved by using these plans. When epilepsy sufferers who were having trouble staying on their medication schedules were asked to formulate an if/when-then plan – for example, “When it is eight in the morning, and I finish brushing my teeth, then I will take my prescribed pill dose” – adherence rose from 55 percent to 79 percent (pg. 139).

If/when-then plans are even effective with opioid addicts going through the process of withdrawal. The entire section is too lengthy to quote here, but you should read Pre-Suasion to see the whole thing. It alone is worth the price of the book.

I implemented the if/when-then plan when writing this very post. It allowed me to get it done in half the time it usually takes me. My plan was “if I want to write something, and when I feel an excuse coming on to procrastinate, then I will write something – anything – even if just a few words.”

In line with my earlier plan to conquer procrastination, “a few words” usually turn into something more, because of the innate human need for completeness and consistency. The Zeigarnik effect ensures that uncompleted tasks remain at the top of your attention ordering (and therefore priorities). Start many little uncompleted tasks, one after another, and sooner than you think, the big uncompleted task gets completed. This is the power of the if/when-then plan. It is clever self-persuasion, that, as Robert Cialdini says, can be “fired when readied pre-suasively.”

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If/when-then plans vs. willpower

As we’ve noted before, willpower is a limited resource. If you use it for one thing at any given time, it won’t be available for something else. You will just break down and decide not to move forward with anything. If/when-then plans cleverly get around willpower, though, because you are persuading yourself to follow your inner nature, and thus the labor feels less like you need to exert yourself in accomplishing it.

This is not to say that an if/when-then plan bypasses willpower entirely. Nothing does. Nevertheless, because you’re exerting yourself a little less, or think you are, you won’t be tapping into your willpower as much as you would by just forcing yourself to do whatever task is in front of you. As such, more will be available for use later on.

When combined with optimizing your energy for time and location, an if/when-then plan can be a legitimate game changer in your daily life and productivity.


There’s not much more for me to say. You just need to implement these plans for yourself and see how they work for you. The good news is that because they’re based on the universal principles of influence and decades of psychological research on attention and priority-setting, if/when-then plans will work on anything you want to use them for. They have a proven track record with mountains of data arguing in their favor.

Whether you want to approach more women, do some extra reps in the gym, or get at least part of that annoying, tedious task you don’t want to do done, making use of if/when-then plans will make taking those smaller steps easier, until the big object of your design is accomplished.

Forth Eorlingas
Think of if/when-then plans as a continual charge forward. If the charge stalls, you fail. The plans helps you keep momentum going. Forth eorlingas!

Lives of the Luminaries and Stumped both have more about self-persuasion.

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