The Research-Backed Two-Word Solution to Tripling Your Productivity (no, really)

I love planning. Planning gets an invite to my dinner party every night of the week. Planning is like a devilishly charming raconteur thrilling you with their adventures in far-flung locales like the Laotian Mekong. Then there’s doing – doing is like an autistic geographer detailing in monotone the troubled and complex history of that same locale.  Doing is hard, something to be avoided, but planning — the clean slate, the bold ideas, the big-eyed promise of all you’ll do and how — comes easy.  And the centerpiece of planning is the to-do list.

Oh, the gratifying joy of merely jotting down a list of tasks. To have begun is to be half done! Unfortunately there’s not much of a market for half done and so, over the years, I’ve tried nearly everything to make me more of a doer. In fact, much of the time when I’m not doing, I’m reading or talking about the productivity tips and systems of super-doers, everything from to to David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

And then along comes Heidi Grant Halvorson, a recent guest of The Social Capitalist, who made the startling declaration that the last 40 years of social science research tells us the single most effective strategy for improving productivity, greater than all these other tips and systems combined, can be summed up in two words:

If. Then.

Heidi isn’t so easy to dismiss. With popular blog columns in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Psychology Today, and a new book book entitled Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, she is a motivational psychologist at the forefront of the science of success.

Turns out that the doing part of our brains is indeed a bit of an analytical bore that processes information in the language of contingencies. Our unconscious remembers information in “If X, then Y” terms and is constantly scanning the environment, ready to turn X contingency into Y behavior (e.g. Unconscious: It’s April 24th.  Me: It’s my wife’s birthday!! I must get a present or I’ll be murdered!!).

Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise ( e.g “If it’s 8am on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, then I will use the treadmill for 30 minutes.”) to time management (e.g. “If the report is not done by lunch, then I will finish it when I return.”), have shown that those who decided in advance when and where they would take specific action doubled and sometimes tripled the success rates of those who did not use this form of if-then planning.

What I needed to do all along was have the raconteur (planning) tell his thrilling stories in a way (if-then) that the autistic geographer (doing) could understand. I’m going to give it a whirl. For the next couple months all my to-do lists will be in the if-then format and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Click here for the full transcript from the interview: Social Capitalist Transcript – Heidi Grant Halvorson. If you’re as into such research-backed insights into the science of success as I am, definitely check out the MP3 of our interview.

Tahl Raz is the co-author of Never Eat Alone and the host of myGreenlight’s Social Capitalist series.

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