If one thing happens, then do something… | David Stiernholm

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03 May

If one thing happens, then do something automatically


Datum: 2022-05-03 12:00
Sketch of a human head with cogwheels as a brain (black on white)

Rather than writ­ing things down in a to-do-list in order to remem­ber, I want them to get done auto­mat­i­cal­ly. It is won­der­ful know­ing that some things just get done with­out hav­ing to make the effort of remem­ber­ing to do them. We do not have to remem­ber and write them down, be remind­ed and final­ly check them off the list. We sim­ply com­plete them with less effort com­pared to oth­er tasks.

It sounds eas­i­er said than done, and the ques­tion is: how? This time I do not have an app in mind, but am refer­ring to research con­duct­ed on this topic.


For you who pre­fer lis­ten­ing to read­ing, this post is also avail­able as a pod­cast episode:


Inten­tion with direction

Imple­men­ta­tion inten­tions” is the name of the method stud­ied by, amongst oth­ers, Pro­fes­sor Pro­fes­sor Peter Goll­witzer at NY State Uni­ver­si­ty (whom I was made aware of by my good friend, the pro­cras­ti­na­tion-spe­cial­ist and autho­rized psy­chol­o­gist Alexan­der Rozen­tal at Psykolog­fab­riken). The method is found­ed on the prin­ci­ple of for­mu­lat­ing what we want to do in an if …, then …”-for­mat. 

Sitting down at your desk after lunch


It can for instance con­cern a sit­u­a­tion in which we have pre­vi­ous­ly pri­or­i­tized in a cer­tain way, but from now on wish to pri­or­i­tize dif­fer­ent­ly. Let us say that we tend to take it easy for a while after return­ing to the desk after our lunch break, and that this lit­tle while tends to be longer than we actu­al­ly would want it to be (since we had a whole pile of tasks that we need­ed to get done). This is an excel­lent time to for­mu­late an inten­tion that we from now on do things dif­fer­ent­ly, for exam­ple that When I sit down at my desk after return­ing from lunch, I will spend some time work­ing on the most tedious task I have to do at the moment.”.

Not just one more thing”

Or, if we have a ten­den­cy to do just one last thing” before leav­ing the office at the end of the day and doing so becomes the rea­son why we are often not home on time, we might set the inten­tion that When­ev­er I think the thought just one more thing” as the work­day is com­ing to a close, I will write it down on a piece of paper which I place on the com­put­er key­board right before get­ting up to leave, and then pro­ceed to deal­ing with the task tomor­row morning.”.

If you have ever done any pro­gram­ming, you are famil­iar with if …, then …”-for­mats, and this works accord­ing to the same prin­ci­ples, but for your own habits and behaviors.

Trig­ger inten­tion­al­ly and automatically

What Goll­witzer and oth­er researchers have found is that this type of for­mu­lat­ing inten­tions increas­es our abil­i­ty to remem­ber that, when, where and how we are to do some­thing. By in this man­ner defin­ing a rule, a chain of events, we reduce the amount of options in the if …”-sit­u­a­tion, which relieves us of the respon­si­bil­i­ty to pri­or­i­tize (since the pri­or­i­ti­za­tion is some­how already made) and allows us to more or less auto­mat­i­cal­ly do what we pre­vi­ous­ly deter­mined we would do.

Gol­low­itzer describes the phe­nom­e­non as that we del­e­gate the con­trol over our actions to a sit­u­a­tion­al trig­ger. Some­thing hap­pens, a sit­u­a­tion occurs and as a result of this, we act in a pre­de­ter­mined way — automatically.

Auto­mat­ic, but in moderation

If you feel even the slight­est appre­hen­sion that you would turn into some­what of a robot if you were to imple­ment this method, have no fear. You do not have to use this approach exclu­sive­ly and for every­thing, but begin with just one par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion and one pre-deter­mined course of action. 

Your unique, rich per­son­al­i­ty will not be tam­pered with. And, you will get a par­tic­u­lar assign­ment done with much greater ease.

Do this

  1. Choose some­thing you want to do, but tend not to do.

  2. Now visu­al­ize an appro­pri­ate sit­u­a­tion in which to do the task in question.

  3. Look for a trig­ger, mean­ing a spe­cif­ic and con­crete occur­rence that could con­sti­tute the if …”-part of the if-then-sce­nario. It could be enter­ing a cer­tain room, sit­ting down, that a meet­ing comes to a close, pass­ing by a cer­tain loca­tion or place, that some­one asks you a cer­tain ques­tion, that some­one says some­thing spe­cif­ic to you, that you receive a cer­tain kind of email, or some­thing else.

  4. For­mu­late what you will do when the sit­u­a­tion occurs in terms of a step which is as small and con­crete as you can make it.

  5. Now you have all your com­po­nents. Say, read or write the phrase to yourself.

  6. If you real­ly want to make sure you remem­ber your set inten­tion, you could for instance:
    • record it as a voice note on your phone and lis­ten to it a few times on your way to work, dur­ing your lunch and on your way home.
    • write it on a note which you paste in a loca­tion where you will def­i­nite­ly see it, for instance where you stand or sit when wait­ing for your morn­ing cof­fee to brew, on the inside of your bath­room cab­i­net, or in a plas­tic pock­et on the wall in your shower.
  7. Allow a few weeks to pass and notice if you by imple­ment­ing this method now get what you want­ed to get done eas­i­er than you pre­vi­ous­ly did. If it works, enjoy the progress made. If things did not improve much, then try again and be even more spe­cif­ic this time.

Mak­ing the right decision

If you active­ly use imple­men­ta­tion inten­tions”, it will become eas­i­er for you to act in accor­dance with your actu­al pref­er­ences in giv­en sit­u­a­tions. If you from now on wish to respond to a par­tic­u­lar ques­tion in a cer­tain way or choose the bet­ter alter­na­tive when faced with a recur­ring sit­u­a­tion where you need to make a deci­sion, the prob­a­bil­i­ty that you do what you actu­al­ly want to have done, increases.

If you allow imple­men­ta­tion inten­tion help you to always per­form a task you have to do in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, you will not have the trou­ble of writ­ing it down on your to-do-list. This will in turn make the list short­er, yet you will still get more things done. You will not have to spend ener­gy on pri­or­i­tiz­ing what to do in these sit­u­a­tions, but the right task to do right now will auto­mat­i­cal­ly be giv­en the high­est pri­or­i­ty when that spe­cif­ic thing occurs, since when this sit­u­a­tion hap­pens, we sim­ply do what needs to be done.

What is your way?

How do you get things done more auto­mat­i­cal­ly, but with­out using an app, a script or a com­put­er pro­gram? Tell me!

(Also, an imple­men­ta­tion inten­tion is an excel­lent tool to use when decid­ing what to improve in your struc­ture dur­ing the com­ing year.)


By the way, if you want more tips on how to cre­ate good struc­ture at work — here are many ways to get just that.

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