Was one of your resolutions this year not to get behind the wheel of your vehicle if you’ve been drinking? How are you doing at keeping it? If you’re like most other people, now that we’re almost one month into 2017 many of your well-intentioned goals for changing your life have already gone by the wayside.
But there is a way to increase your success dramatically—and it’s not that hard to put into practice. It’s a technique that psychologists call implementation planning (or in less formal terms, if-then planning). You can employ this technique when you’re trying to lose weight, get a better handle on your emails at work or even when you’re trying to ensure that you don’t end up with a DUI conviction on your driving record.
The concept of using if-then statements to achieve a goal is not new; Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at NYU, introduced the idea back in the 1990s. But people are revisiting the technique because studies have shown that this technique works extremely well in changing habits and helping people achieve desired behaviors.
In June 2016 Psychology Today ran an article entitled “The Science of Success: The If-Then Solution.” The author, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, explained how employing the if-then technique had helped her–an avowed exercise hater—stick to her goal of working out three times a week since the beginning of 2010.
Halvorson said that most people fail to make desired behavior changes because they’re not specific enough in formulating what they want to do. A New Year’s resolution that simply states, “I’m going to exercise more,” isn’t nearly as effective as one that includes detail: “I’m going to work out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after I get off work.” Putting that statement into if-then terms—“If it’s after work on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, then I’m going to work out at the gym”—sends an encoded message to your brain that makes your chance of success much greater.
According to Halvorson, a review of more than 94 studies has shown that you’re two to three times more likely to succeed in keeping a resolution or changing a behavior if you use an if-then plan then if you don’t.
Using if-then to reach your goals—and avoid DUIs
If you love sweets, it’s tough to resist snagging a donut from the baker that you pass by every day on your way to work. You can tell yourself all the reasons that you don’t need that donut, and vow that you won’t darken that baker’s door again, but the odds are good that just catching a whiff of that sugary smell may be enough to make you forget (or at least ignore) your good intentions.
The if-then approach would be to think about the situation that you’ll be facing and give yourself very specific instructions on how to deal with it. For example, “If I have to go by the bakery every day, then I will walk on part of the sidewalk closest to the street to avoid going into it.” According to the proponents of the if-then approach, making that statement will link the event and the action you want to take in your subconscious. If you’re passing the bakery, then you’re going to be walking close to the curb to resist temptation.
If-then statements could be a powerful tool if you know your current behavior puts you at risk for a DUI. Even when you sincerely want to avoid the expense, embarrassment and long-term consequences of a DUI conviction, your good intentions may disappear along with your first drink unless you have a specific plan.
You need to envision situations where you might be tempted to get behind the wheel after having a few too many drinks and figure out ways to either avoid them or to find alternatives to drinking and driving.
Suppose you play in a band that has booked a gig at a bar. You know that as the evening wears on you’re likely to get very warm while performing, and that your usual habit is to grab several beers during that time to cool off. You also realize that getting behind the wheel when the bar closes would not be a good decision.
Planning ahead using if-then statements gives you plenty of time to envision the situation and develop a better strategy.
Your if-then statement could be “If my band is playing at a bar this weekend, then I will call Uber to get a ride home.” Another possibility is “If I get overheated while I’m playing, then I will drink bottled water or soda to cool off instead of beer.”
Notice that the “then” statements are explicit. Instead of saying “I’ll try to find a ride home with someone,” you identify Uber as your driving alternative. Instead of saying you won’t drink beer, you choose the specific alternatives of water (or soda).
Another scenario: A good friend is celebrating a big birthday and plans a pub crawl in honor of the occasion. He’s asked you to be his designated driver, but you know that your willpower may not be that strong and that you could end up drinking more than you should.
One workable if-then statement could be “If I end up having more than two drinks over the course of the evening then I will text my boyfriend (or girlfriend)—whom I’ve already asked to be on call—and arrange for him/her to pick me up.”
Another could be “If I decide to drink, then I will limit myself to two beers and I will order a sandwich (or some other type of food) at the same time to help diffuse the effects of the alcohol on my system.”
Or maybe you’ve been invited to a family wedding at a local hotel—and you know from previous experiences that the liquor is likely to flow freely during the reception. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll wait until after the party to decide how you’re going to get home. Make a plan up front and couch it in terms of an if-then statement.
“If I accept the invitation to this wedding, then I am going to call the hotel on Monday and reserve a room for the night. I’ll ask my cousin Joe to share the cost of the room with me so that neither of us has to worry about getting home safely.” This if-then statement has a double benefit, because you eliminate the possibility that either you or your relative will remember that event as the night that you got a DUI.
If you’re hanging out at a friend’s home, the beers can disappear quickly as you’re sitting around talking, watching movies, playing video games and just relaxing. Get yourself ready for the evening with if-then planning. “If I end up drinking more than three beers, then I am going to ask to crash on my friend’s sofa for the night.” Another possibility is “If I get to Joe’s house and see that there are no alternatives to alcohol, then I am going to leave immediately and go buy some soda and some snacks so that I can consume those instead of drinking all evening.”
If you are serious about avoiding a DUI and all of its consequences, then you should employ the if-then planning strategy so that you’re well prepared the next time you’re tempted to drink and then drive.
Want to learn more about how if-then planning works? Check out these resources:
The Science of Success: The If-Then Solution (Psychology Today)
If When Then Planning Helps You Achieve Your Goals (Business Insider)
Implementation Intentions (An academic paper by Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, who introduced the if-then concept.)