All Talk and No Action? Try “If-Then” Plans…

The Power of “If-Then” Planning For Encouraging Teens To Take Action

Teenage Girl In Untidy BedroomCan you believe the summer is more than halfway over?  It’s amazing how quickly the time flies!

I’ve talked with a few parents recently who are feeling frustrated with their teens’ lack of progress with summer projects like doing their summer reading or cleaning their room.

Despite saying numerous times that they’ll get started with this “soon”, they still haven’t made much — if any — progress on these goals.

As we all know, there can be a big difference between saying that something will happen and actually getting it done!

This is especially true in the summer, when most teens are far more interested in relaxing and hanging out with friends than they are in completing that math packet that needs to be done before the start of the fall semester.

If this is happening with your teen, here’s something that might help!

“If-then” planning…

If-then planning is a simple and powerful approach to turning your teen’s goals and intentions into concrete results.

How it works…

If your teen has a general goal she would like to reach—for example, finishing her summer reading—encourage her to take it one step further and create a specific “if-then” plan for what, when, and where she will take action.

For  example…

“If we’re in the car driving somewhere, I’ll take out my book and do some of my summer reading.”  (Of course, this would only work if your teen’s not the one driving!)


“If it’s a weekday after dinner, I’ll go down to the basement and spend half an hour on my summer reading.”

The research…

In a review of 94 tests from 63 different studies, “if-then” plans were demonstrated to have a significant effect on participants’ ability to follow through and take the necessary actions to achieve their goals. (Gollwitzer & Sheeran 2006)

Results from Gollwitzer & Brandstätter (1997)

Creating an “if-then” plan—or what researchers call an “implementation intention”—has been shown to increase the rate of follow-through by 2-3 times over the rate for people who simply stated that they would complete something, but didn’t decide when and where they would do it.

For example, when university students were asked to write an essay over Christmas break, 71% of the students who created “if-then” plans completed and submitted their essay… whereas only 39% of students who didn’t create “if-then” plans actually followed through with their intention to complete and submit their essay.

That’s nearly double the rate of completion, just for taking a few moments to set an intention for when and where they would take the actions necessary to complete their goal!


Putting it into practice…

I use this type of planning all the time with my coaching students.  Before wrapping up our sessions, we routinely take a few minutes to discuss what they will do to take action on the ideas we’ve discussed that day, and create a plan for when and where they will do it.

I also encourage them to think through what might keep them from following through with their plans, and decide how they will respond to those obstacles.  To take our example from earlier, if a student was planning to do summer reading after dinner, but realized that there would be a lot of evenings when she was out with her friends for dinner rather than being at home, she might create an alternative plan for those days: “if I’m going out with my friends for dinner, I’ll do my reading for half an hour after breakfast”.

Having this type of specific, concrete plan for what to do really helps increase the chances that they will follow through with it.

This is something that you can do with your teen at home as well, by encouraging him to take the statement “I’ll do it…” one step further, to specify exactly what, when, and where he do this action.

If you ask your teen to come up with this plan themselves, rather than creating the plan for them, they will generally be more motivated to complete it.

Another way to make these plans more effective is to make them as specific as possible.  For example: “If it’s a weekday, I will spend some time cleaning my room” is much less effective than “If it’s a weekday evening after I’ve brushed my teeth, I will hang up my clothes and make sure everything on the floor is put away before getting in bed.”

Coming up with a specific if-then plan, especially if it is connected to an existing habit like eating dinner or showering, can often be enough to encourage teens to take action, even without additional reminders.  But, just in case, it can also be helpful to set a phone alarm or write a reminder in a planner or on a post-it note, to remind them to follow through with their “if-then” plan.

Take Action!

Does your teen have any projects on which he or she has been promising to take action…but so far making little,  if any, progress?  How could you use “if-then” planning to help your teen follow through and take action?

This approach isn’t limited to teens, either—it can be a helpful habit for anyone!   I have several summer goals & projects that could really benefit from some “if-then” planning.  What about you?

If you give this a try with your teen, I’d love to hear how it goes!

Gollwitzer & Sheeran (2006). Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta-analysis of Effects and Processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 38, 69-119.
Gollwitzer & Brandstätter (1997). Implementation Intentions and Effective Goal Pursuit.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73: 1, 186-199.


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By |July 11th, 2014|Categories: Motivation|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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