In our era of positive thinking, trying to anticipate problems might seem like being a “Debbie Downer.” Or, for those who feel strongly that focusing on an outcome may bring about that reality, thinking about hurdles and roadblocks seems like manifesting those problems into existence.
For the rest of us, we might call thinking about future problems being realistic. Focusing on problems and pitfalls can be debilitating when it stands in the way of action, but when anticipating challenges helps you plan for steering your project through normal and predictable hurdles, that’s just being proactive. This is the same reason that corporations beta test and theater companies run dress rehearsals—they want to know and adapt to likely difficulties so that they can tweak and shift.
In our day-to-day lives, it’s not always possible to do a soft opening or a dress rehearsal, but we can use our knowledge about our various personal and professional activities to do a bit of brainstorming and if-then planning. If-then planning is deceptively simple. Really, the name says it all. You simply list several potential obstacles you might realistically encounter in the pursuit of your goal, and then you list the specific action you will take in response to each one of the obstacles.
When we don’t anticipate problems, we’re making a key strategic planning error. Whether preparing for a big meeting in which you’ll be pitching, or thinking about how you’ll approach a family gathering with a notoriously difficult relative, research suggests that using if-then planning for likely problems that will arise increases the odds you’ll achieve desired outcomes. As a study in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggests, this kind of planning helps people to “close the gap between wanting to attain a goal and actually attaining it.”
Rather than passively receiving negative experiences relative to your goal, if-then planning allows you to remain the active agent in your story, one capable of regrouping and moving your plan ahead.
The best if-then planning is strategic, forward thinking and involves both self-knowledge, which is a kind of clear-eyed realism, and the imaginative skill of brainstorming possibilities over which we have less control. A group of researchers on the subject put it this way: “A key feature of successful self-control is the motivation and ability to shield one’s goal-related behavior from distractions.” In other words, it’s very normal to be disrupted; people who have what looks like more willpower may actually just be savvier about anticipating and preventing threats to that willpower.
Knowing and acknowledging our own limitations, when done reasonably and objectively, can be an important tool to success rather than an exercise in beating ourselves up. To take a simple and near-universal example, consider the middle of the afternoon junk food break. Predictably, we sit at our desks, our minds wander, followed by our feet, and we find ourselves in front of the vending machine or the office candy bowl. Anticipating the afternoon sugar craving is not about yelling at yourself for being weak; instead, think about it as a common-sense reflection on past data. Given this past data, you might reasonably assume that the pull of the peanut M&Ms is a very likely “if” that will threaten to derail your healthy eating plan. And given the acknowledgement of this likelihood, you can make your “then” plan.
It might look like this: “If I find myself standing in front of the vending machine, then I will move the dollar bill into a ‘snack savings’ envelope in my purse instead and walk over to my friend’s desk to chat.” With such a plan, you use the “if” of one behavior as a cue to another. You might also list some other likely challenges your healthy eating plan could encounter, like this: “If Sarah brings in her latest baking creation, then I will say that looks lovely, but I’m trying not to snack at work.” Having some stock “then” phrases that you can automatically use in various scenarios saves the mental energy of coming up with excuses and gives a better likelihood of success.
Sometimes, “if-then” planning needs to account for doing something challenging when you don’t want to, rather than managing external difficulties. For example, you might be trying to write your book on the side, which means writing either before or after work each day. One thing that distinguishes more productive writers is their ability to produce even when they aren’t in the mood. Given that most writers face mornings or evenings when they aren’t particularly inspired, you might reasonably expect that you won’t be an exception to the rule and come up with some “if-then” plans to write anyway.
It might look like this: “If I don’t feel like writing, then I will set a timer to write for just 15 minutes,” or, “If I find myself checking social media instead of writing, then I will brew a cup of tea and write in a paper journal.” The key, as above, is anticipating problems with realism and compassion and coming up with specific solutions that you can easily execute, almost without thinking.
Sometimes the thing derailing our best-laid plans is not within our control. For example, maybe you have a plan to get your finances in better shape this year. One of your steps toward this admirable goal is to ask your supervisor for a raise. So far, so good. Now, what’s not in your control is the answer you receive.
In the scenario in which you’ll be dealing with someone else (oh, other people, those erratic inputs!), if-then planning can help you be fleeter and better prepared to negotiate your desired outcome. You could recruit a trusted friend or family member to role-play in order to help you to anticipate someone else’s various possible reactions to you (the “ifs”) and try out a variety of “then” solutions for each scenario. Research has shown that this kind of planning is especially important when there is a power differential. People in lower power positions are often too quick to abandon a goal or to accept a less-than-optimal outcome. If-then planning can help an employee stick to their guns when negotiating with a supervisor.
Whether it’s approaching an issue at work or implementing a new personal project, if-then planning uses a clear, problem-spotting eye and generates solutions. And there’s nothing that’s a downer about that.
This article was published in November 2019 and has been updated. Photo by @Elloco/Twenty20