What if I told you that filling out one simple little sentence could increase your chances of achieving a goal by 100 to 200 percent?

What if this sentence worked subconsciously to automatically reduce your need for motivation, willpower, or desire?

And what if you could use this sentence for all types of goals, including exercise, diet, health, and everything else?

Thanks to the work of a number of psychologists over the course of a decade, this sentence exists, and it has three parts: what, when, and where.

This sentence was the focus of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Bath, who randomly assigned 248 adults to one of three groups.

  1. People who were asked to read a few paragraphs from a random novel before working out.
  2. People who were asked to read a pamphlet on the heart benefits of exercise, and were told that most young adults who stick to an exercise program reduce their risk of heart disease.
  3. People who were also asked to read the pamphlet, but in addition, to use the following sentence to formulate an exact exercise plan: “During the next week, I will partake in at least twenty minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Two weeks later, here’s what the researchers found:

  • Thirty-eight percent of participants in the first group exercised at least once per week.
  • Thirty-five percent of participants in the second group exercised at least once per week.
  • Ninety-one percent of participants in the third group exercised at least once per week.

No, that’s not a typo. By simply writing when and where exercise was going to occur, follow-through skyrocketed.

Similar results have been seen in other exercise studies, as well as research analyzing a variety of positive behaviors ranging from breast self-examination to dietary adherence, condom usage, breast and cervical screenings, vitamin supplementation, alcohol intake, and more.

As it happens, there are over one hundred published studies on this phenomenon, and the conclusion is crystal clear: if you explicitly state what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and where you’re going to do it, you’re much more likely to actually do it.

For example:

  • “Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’m going to wake up at 7 a.m. and go to the gym” will be far more effective than “I’m going to start exercising.”
  • “Every evening after dinner, I’m going to sit down on the couch and read twenty-five pages before watching TV,” and not “I’m going to read every day.”
  • “Every Friday after I deposit my paycheck, I’m going to transfer 10 percent of it into my savings account” will help you grow your savings a lot faster than “I’m going to save more than I did last year.”

What–when–where statements are far more effective for regulating behavior than relying on inspiration or willpower to strike at the right moment, because they speak to the brain’s natural language, creating a trigger-and-response mechanism that doesn’t require conscious monitoring or analysis.

If you want to get even more out of this process, you can include another type of statement that’s scientifically proven to increase self-control: the if–then statement. Together, these two formulas can create powerful subconscious models for future behavior.

An if–then statement looks like this: If X happens, then I will do Y. This works for the same reason what–where–when statements work, and it allows you to plan for life’s curveballs and contingencies and thereby reduce the need for self-control or willpower when things go sideways.

For example, let’s say you have decided that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you’re going to wake up at 7 a.m. and go to the gym. To generate complementary if–then statements, think about what might get in the way of your plan, and what you’ll do in each scenario.

Here’s a good start:

  • If it’s 10 p.m., then I will start getting ready for bed so I get enough sleep.
  • If I don’t get enough sleep, then I will still get up at 7 a.m. and do my workout.
  • If my alarm goes off, I will immediately get out of bed, drink an espresso, and start getting ready for the gym.
  • If I miss a workout for any reason, then I will do it after work.
  • If I can’t go to the gym after work, then I will do the workout on Saturday or Sunday at 9 a.m.

Every what–when–where statement can be strengthened in this way, and especially after you’ve gotten into action. Unforeseen obstacles and complications will require that you augment and adjust your systems, including the whats, whens, wheres, ifs, and thens.

Psychologists call this process of using mental exercises to stress test your desired outcomes “mental contrasting,” and research conducted by scientists at the University of Hamburg, University of Freiburg, and New York University shows that it can increase your motivation to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.

Interestingly, it can also decrease your motivation, depending on how you respond to the process.

As the developer of this technique, Gabriele Oettingen, explained in her 2014 book Rethinking Positive Thinking, if you catalog all the potential barriers, snags, and stumbling blocks you can think of and still believe you can achieve your goal, you’ll probably feel a surge of motivation. On the other hand, you might realize your goal is unrealistic (“Go from zero to playing Liszt’s ‘Campanella’ in a few months”) or simply not worth pursuing given the level of difficulty that you foresee.

Either way, the outcome is positive. You steam forward with even more clarity and confidence, or you go back to the drawing board and rework your vision into something more plausible.

Pretty cool, right?

It’s amazing how big of a difference “little” things can make when they’re the right little things—the “20% things” that matter the most and drive 80% of the outcomes.

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little black book of workout motivation cover

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