How to Keep Your Will Power

It can be difficult to follow through on resolutions, so Chip and Dan Heath have one easy piece of advice to make sure you keep going to the gym, update your resume, or complete any task:

Say that you’ve been procrastinating going to the gym. So you resolve to yourself: Tomorrow morning, right after I drop off Anna at school, I’ll head straight there for my workout. Let’s call this mental plan an “action trigger.” You’ve made the decision to execute a certain action plan (working out) when you encounter a certain situational trigger (the school circle, tomorrow morning).

The psychologists Peter Gollwitzer and Veronika Brandstatter have found that action triggers are quite effective in motivating action. In one study, they tracked college students who had the option to earn extra credit in a class by writing a paper about how they spent Christmas Eve. But there was a catch: To earn the credit, they had to submit the paper by December 26. Most students had good intentions of writing the paper, but only 33% of them got around to writing and submitting it.

Other students in the study were required to set action triggers—to note, in advance, exactly when and where they intended to write the report. (E.g., “I’ll write it in my Dad’s office on Christmas morning before everyone gets up”) A whopping 75% of these students wrote the report.

That’s a pretty astonishing result for such a small mental investment.

You mean just by imagining a time and place where you’ll do something, you make it more likely? Yes and no. Action triggers won’t get you (or anyone else) to do something they truly don’t want to do. An action trigger never would have convinced college students to participate in an online “calculus camp” on Christmas Day. But, as the extra-credit study demonstrates, action triggers can have a profound power to motivate people to do the things they know they need to do.

Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, is the pioneer of the work in this area, and the co-author of the extra-credit study. He argues that the value of action triggers is in the fact that we are pre-loading a decision. When you drop off Anna at school, it triggers the next action—going to the gym. There’s not even a conscious deliberation cycle. In pre-loading the decision, we conserve [our] self-control.

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