Of the possible metaphors for human cognition, a computer is not the most flattering.
But sometimes it’s the most accurate: If you plug in the right information, you’ll see the desired results. At least, that’s what the psychologist Robert Cialdini suggests in “Pre-Suasion,” a new book that’s partly about getting others to do what you want and partly about getting you to do what you want.
One example of the latter is “if/when-then plans,” a strategy that can help you achieve your goals, and that requires you to see your brain as remarkably similarly to the device on which you’re reading these words.
Here’s how it works. You pick a cue: a specific time or place. Then you pick a desirable action that you can link to that cue.
So if you want to lose weight, Cialdini says your plan would be: “If/when, after my business lunches, the server asks if I’d like to have dessert, then I will order mint tea.”
Psychologists have known about this tool for a while now. Research suggests that people who use if/when-then planning are between two and three times more likely to achieve their goals — whether they’re related to weight loss, fitness, or work and productivity —than those who don’t.
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Cialdini offers a fresh take on why the strategy works: “We become prepared, first, to notice the favorable time or circumstance and, second, to associate it automatically and directly with desired conduct.”
He explains that a computer program typically contains links that launch with one click because they have been readied, or hyperlinked, to the information you want. Web browser engineers call the hyperlinking process “prefetching.”
You can set up a similar system in your brain, so that the result is a healthy behavior. Cialdini writes: “These goals exist as prefetched sources of information and direction that have been placed on standby, waiting to be launched into operation by cues that remind us of them.”
In other words, the click is the cue: the waiter asking whether you’d like dessert. A direct link has already been made between the waiter’s question and your response. The information that appears on the screen is your answer: “I’ll have mint tea, please.”
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By treating yourself like a computer, you make the process of achieving your goals a whole lot easier. Instead of having an internal debate over whether you’ll order tea or a cookie every single time the waiter comes over, you’ve got an automatic response that fits with your long-term goals.
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“Especially for goals we are highly committed to reaching,” Cialdini says, “we’d be foolish not to take advantage of the pre-suasive leverage that if/when-then plans can provide.”