This post is adapted from something I wrote about CPD for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

Whether it’s a new year’s resolution or a Lenten fast, many of us try at various points in the year to make changes, but it’s easy for these to peter out over time. How can we stop our good intentions ending up as wishful thinking? Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” includes some intriguing evidence about how we can move from good intentions to actions with three simple steps:

1. Know what you want to do and why you’re doing it

Write down your goals and why they’re important to you and/or your organisation. So for example, do you want to improve a particular skill due to a business need (e.g. more clients are asking for X right now) or are you interested in possible career opportunities specialising in this area?

A clear definition of the desired outcome will also help you explain how you will know if you have achieved it, and over what timescale you need to work on it. This might be a company deadline for compliance with a given standard, or a personal goal such as running a marathon or achieving a professional qualification.

2. Plan how you will do it

A written plan makes a big difference, particularly when you use it to consider potential barriers and resources required, so that you can develop a strategy to overcome them. One study (1) asked half of a group of elderly patients in Glasgow to write down a detailed plan before their hip operation about how they would keep up their rehab exercises each day, despite the pain involved. Three months later, the patients who had written a plan had recovered their strength and mobility twice as fast as those who attended the same rehab classes and physiotherapy but without making a written plan.

Hopefully opportunities to get fit or extend your knowledge aren’t actually painful, but many people still find it hard to weave them regularly into their lives. One particularly effective way to do this is to consider cues which will help you get started by using a statement of the form “if/when this happens, then I will do that”.

For example, Robert Cialdini’s great book “Pre-Suasion” quotes a study where a group of jobseekers were challenged to write out their employment history to help prepare their CVs. Some of them also wrote a short “if/then” statement, e.g. “when lunch is finished and the canteen is quiet, then I’ll sit at an empty table and get writing.” By the end of the day, a huge 80% of those who’d produced an “if/then” plan had written out their employment history, while in the control group, a big fat ZERO participants had found the time or the inclination. Does this sound familiar to you?

Here are a few “if/then” statements I’m using this year:

  • “When I’m cooking, I will put on a recorded lecture from the ICE website to help extend my skills”.
  • I’m an engineering mentor so I have arranged that “Whenever I meet my trainee to discuss his progress, I will ask him for his current CPD record and provide him with mine”. This has the extra kick of accountability by visibly practising the same behaviours that I require from others. Having friends, family or colleagues holding you accountable is a well-known spur to get on with important-but-not-urgent stuff you would never get round to otherwise.
  • “When I attend meetings in London, I will call into the ICE library and borrow at least one book”.  By this method, I’ve borrowed and read at least several chapters apiece of about 10 engineering textbooks in 2016, which have expanded my knowledge of sustainable transport and flooding. Also, ICE Library currently has the world’s longest Lego bridge in it, which has to make it the coolest place to read for miles around.

3. Track your progress over time and iterate based on your experience

Regular record keeping has been found to become a “keystone habit” that helps keep you on track, whatever your goals. For example, dieters who keep a food diary of everything they eat at least once a week lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t, and researchers found a similar effect when people recorded their weight every day.

Engineers also use this approach, both by using our CPD records to keep a regular record of courses, books or experiences that stretched us, and by considering how effective these activities have been, so that we can amend plans accordingly. “Plans are useless, but planning is essential”, as the military saying has it!

And here’s my top tip: there is no rule that says you have to evaluate at the same time as you record what you’ve been doing. In fact, many people find it more useful to quickly record stuff shortly after completion, then review it at intervals (maybe every few weeks or months) to look for patterns or comment on the effectiveness of their efforts. For example, if your diary shows that you often find yourself reaching for a chocolate bar at about 3pm, you could experiment with alternative “if/then” plans to help you do something differently, such as keeping fruit in your drawer instead of chocolate! So why not give it a try today? You might just surprise yourself.

See also