Use Implementation Intentions to Overcome Procrastination
implementation intentions and procrastination

“Give Me One Simple But Effective Strategy to Beat Procrastination.”

I’ve been struggling with procrastination all my life. About two years ago, I decided I’ve had enough and started actively working on reducing my procrastination. Since then I’ve read a lot of books and articles on the subject and I’ve tried lots of different tools and tactics. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t.

Today, I want to share one strategy with you that works exceptionally well: implementation intentions.

If someone were to tell me, “Give me one simple yet effective strategy to beat procrastination,” I would refer them to this article. Implementation intentions may well be the #1 most effective strategy to get a handle on procrastination. In today’s article, I will give you ample proof for this claim. I’ll show you what implementation intentions are, why they work, proof that they work, and exactly how to apply them to eliminate (read: reduce) procrastination in your own life.

What Are Implementation Intentions?

Implementation intentions are simple if-then plans that pre-decide how you will act in a future situation. They determine when, where, and how you will act on a specific goal of yours.

They usually look something like this:

“If situation x arises, then I will perform response y.”

The “IF” stands for the cue and the “THEN” stands for the planned response to that cue.

If I get home from work, then I eat a healthy dinner. If the alarm clock goes off, then I’ll immediately get out of bed. If I’m done with breakfast, then I’ll start working on my homework.

You decide now how you will act in the future. You pick a cue and add your desired response. Simple enough.

What Implementation Intentions Can Do for You (the Proof Is in ~100 Studies)

In an early study, students were approached shortly before Christmas break and asked if they would participate in an experiment of how people spend their holidays. Those who agreed were then told that they had to write an easy while home on vacation, describing how they spent their Christmas. The essay had to be mailed in within two days of Christmas Eve. Half of the students were give an additional instruction: decide exactly when and where you are going to write the essay. In other words, they were told to form an implementation intention.

What were the results? Two days after Christmas, 32 percent of the students who made no plan for when and where to write the essay had sent it in. Astonishingly, 71 percent of students who pre-decided when and where to write the essay had sent it in.

The mere act of creating an implementation intention – which maybe took a minute of these students’ time – more than DOUBLED the chances of goal completion.

Another study I found particularly interesting involved twenty heroin addicts receiving in-hospital treatment during withdrawal. They were asked to write up a short résumé – to help them find a job upon their release of treatment – by 5pm that day. Half of them were asked to decide when and where they would write the résumé, half of them weren’t.

The results? At 5pm, eight of the ten addicts who had created a plan had written their résumés. Of the other ten addicts, not a single one had done so.

Another study used implementation intentions to help people quit smoking. Over a period of two months, planners smoked significantly fewer cigarettes than nonplanners. Even more impressive, 12 percent of planners had quit smoking completely, compared to only 2 percent of nonplanners.

And yes, there even was a study showing that implementation intentions help people procrastinate less.

It really doesn’t seem to matter at all what the goal is or who is using the implementation intentions. Pre-deciding when, where, and how we will take action on our goals is a sure-fire way to increase our chances of actually accomplishing them.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and goal expert, sums up the science of implementation intentions nicely in her book Succeed:

“Gollwitzer and his colleague Paschal Sheeran recently reviewed the results from ninety-four studies that measured the effects of if-then planning and found significantly higher rates of goal militainment just about every goal you can think of: using public transportation more frequently, buying organic foods, helping others, driving more carefully, not drinking, not starting smoking, remembering to recycle, following through on New Year’s resolutions, negotiating fairly, avoiding stereotypical and prejudicial thoughts, doing math problems… you name the goal, and these simple plan will help you reach it.”

A little later in the book, she adds:

“Planning when, where, and how you will take the actions needed to reach your goal is probably the single most effective thing you can do to increase you chances of success.”

Clearly, implementation intentions are very powerful. And in a minute, we’ll look at different ways of using them to overcome procrastination. But first, let’s consider why if-then planning works so well. How can such a simple strategy produce such outstanding results?

Why If-Then Planning Works So Well

There are a couple of magnificent things happening in your brain when you decide exactly when, where, and how you will act on any of your goals.

First of all, you create a link between the situation or cue (the IF-part) and the behavior you want to engage in (the THEN-part). Let’s say you want to study next Sunday after you’ve had breakfast. You create the plan: If it’s Sunday after breakfast, then I’ll start studying immediately. Now the situation “Sunday after breakfast” is directly wired in your brain to the behavior “start studying.”

Second, the situation or cue (Sunday after breakfast) becomes highly activated in your brain, which means it’s just dying to get noticed. Totally out of your awareness, your brain is now scanning the environment, looking for the cue in the “IF” part of your plan. As a result, the cue is easily detected, even when you’re busy doing other things. It’s like when a teacher asks a question that you know the answer to: you start jumping around in your seat and raising your hand, dying to get noticed.

Third, here’s where the real magic happens… Once your brain detects the “IF” part of your plan, it automatically executes the “THEN” part of your plan. Since your brain already knows what to do, it can just follow through with the desired action – without any further deliberation or conscious attention. Once you’ve finished breakfast on Sunday, you’ll automatically start studying. Your unconscious mind just takes over and executes your pre-decided plan.

Sometimes you’ll be aware that this is happening and you’ll realize, “Oh, I’m actually doing what I intended to do.” But the beauty is that you don’t have to be conscious of it… you’ll just find yourself doing the right thing – whether you’re aware of it or not, even if you’re completely pre-occupied with other things.

It’s almost as if you’re creating your own positive habits. Peter Gollwitzer, the inventor of implementation intentions, sometimes describes them as “instant habits”. Once your brain makes the connection between cue and action, future behavior becomes automatic and unconscious – in other words, habitual. If you know anything about the power of habits, you surely realize just how powerful this is.

An added benefit of if-then planning is that it conserves our willpower. Whenever your unconscious mind can take over, detecting cues and directing your behavior without conscious effort, it requires far less willpower. This helps us conserve our willpower so that we can use it later on to fight temptations, overcome obstacles, and follow through with helpful behaviors.

How to Use Implementation Intentions to Overcome Procrastination

Implementation intentions help you overcome four common problems with procrastination. Specifically, they help you…

  • Get started
  • Resist temptations
  • Prevent willpower depletion
  • Overcome many other obstacles

Let’s look at each of them in detail…

1. Getting Started

One of the major problems procrastinators face is that we can’t get ourselves to get started. We just can’t do it. We just can’t overcome that resistance. Research shows that we literally feel pain when facing an uncomfortable task and then procrastinate in order to relieve that pain.

The tragedy is that once we actually do get started with a task, the pain goes away almost instantly and amazing things start happening. As I explain in this article, our perceptions of ourselves and the task change, we realize it’s not as bad as we thought, we actually enjoy doing it, we start making progress, we create momentum, we get a sense of accomplishment, we become more motivated and confident in our abilities, and we start experiencing massive upward spirals.

Once we get started – once we overcome that initial resistance, that motivational surface tension – the battle is already half won. So, anything that helps us get started will be a massive help in overcoming procrastination. And boy do implementation intentions help here…

Timothy Pychyl, a procrastination expert, talks about an interesting study in one of his articles:

“Implementation intentions can help you with my most often-offered strategy of, "just get started." In fact, studies indicate that implementation intentions on getting started can even help when we have an initial reluctance to get started on an aversive task and would rather simply, "give in to feel good." My favorite example from the chapter was a study that involved making implementation intentions to get started on weekly math homework (for a period of a month). The math homework was tedious, but those participants who were randomly assigned to the "if -then" format of implementation intentions started their homework within 1.5 hours of their intended start time (as opposed to 8.0 hours for the more vaguely stated implementation intentions).”

How would you like to get started on difficult and uncomfortable tasks 6.5 hours earlier?

So, here’s how it works: You simply pick a cue or situation and then plan to get started on your desired behavior. If you get home from work, then you’ll do a 20-minute home workout. Once your brain detects the cue, you’ll hopefully get started automatically.

  • Want to write on your dissertation tomorrow after dinner? If I’m finished with dinner tomorrow, then I’ll immediately start writing on my dissertation.
  • Want to meditate first thing in the morning? After I get up in the morning, I drink a glass of water and then start meditating.
  • Want to go to bed early? If it’s 9:30pm, then I turn off all electronics and start my evening ritual.
  • Want to get up early? When my alarm clock goes off in the morning, then I immediately get out of bed.
  • Want to complete your weekly math homework? Today, when it’s 6pm, I do my weekly math homework.
  • Want to exercise twice a week? Mondays and Thursday, when I come home from work, then I immediately go for a 20-minute run.

Another scenario that I’m sure you’re familiar with and that happened to me often (and still does!): I genuinely want to do something, but my mind keeps coming up with all kinds of rationalizations and excuses as to why I shouldn’t do it. If I pay attention to these ramblings long enough, you can be sure I’ll procrastinate. Thankfully, implementation intentions help us out-trick our mind.

Here are some implementation intentions for overcoming the excuse-making machinery of our minds:

  • If I say to myself something like “I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” then I will just get started on the task.
  • If I say to myself “I don’t feel like doing this right now,” then I will just get started on the task.

I could go on and on, but you get the point…

Your chances of getting started are just so much better once your unconscious brain is on your side. It’ll detect your cue and automatically move you in the right direction.

2. Resisting Temptations

You wanted to go to the gym after work, but then watching TV seemed a lot sexier. You wanted to pay the bills yesterday, but you ended up surfing on the web for 2 hours. You wanted to get some work done, but you wasted most of your time on Facebook.

Sound familiar?

Between us and our goals are temptations keeping us from doing what we set out to do. As you probably know, temptations are one of the biggest enablers of procrastination. Dr. Piers Steel, a leading procrastination researcher, refers to them as one of the ‘deadliest determinants of procrastination.’

So, what can we do? We can’t just get rid of the internet. We probably don’t want to get rid of the TV either. We still want to feel connected to our friends through social media. We still want to play a video game from time to time.

Getting rid of all these temptations is nearly impossible and for most people undesirable. The goal, therefore, is not to eliminate them but to take back control over them. Watching TV is fine. But not when it gets in the way of our goals. We need to be in control of those temptations – not the other way around.

Implementation intentions are a fantastic way to take back that control. Apparently, there have even been studies on so-called ‘temptation-inhibiting implementation intentions’. And guess what? They work. Timothy Pychyl writes in his book Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:

“In fact, experimental research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues has shown that participants who formed temptation-inhibiting implementation intentions outperformed the groups who did not. Importantly, this effect was independent of the participants’ motivation to achieve the goal and to ignore distractions.”

So simple, yet so effective. Here are some ideas for overcoming temptations with implementation intentions:

  • When I start working on my taxes, then I put my phone on airplane mode
  • If I feel an urge to check Facebook during work time, then I will ignore it and keep working
  • If I’d rather play video games instead of working, then I’ll just ignore it and start working
  • If my friends ask me to come party this weekend, then I will immediately respond by saying, “Thanks, but no. I really need to finish my work project.”

3. Lacking Willpower

Procrastination is ultimately a problem with self-regulation. We fail to regulate our behavior – instead of doing what we want to do, we procrastinate. We have an intention to act, but lack the necessary self-control to do so.

Like I said before, we want to exercise, meditate, work harder, get up early, etc… but we lack the self-control. And self-control, of course, is just another word for willpower. So, procrastination is a problem with willpower, specifically a lack of willpower. But you knew that already.

Implementation intentions help with our lack of willpower in two ways. First, they preserve it, meaning we have more willpower left in the tank for when we’re prone to procrastinate. Second, they help us successfully overcome times of low willpower.

We’ve already discussed the willpower-preserving effects. Basically, whenever the unconscious mind can take over, detecting cues and directing your behavior without conscious effort, you’re saving willpower (which can later be used to overcome procrastination, duh!).

Perhaps even more important is the fact that implementation intentions help us overcome times of low willpower. Timothy Pychyl explains how it works in Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:

“A couple of studies have demonstrated that the automatic nature of the effects of implementation intentions counters the effects of self-regulatory depletion. Let’s take the example where research participants had to control their emotions during a humorous movie (suppressing their laughter). As you will recall, they are usually less capable of doing a subsequent experimental task that requires self-regulatory strength, such as solving anagrams. However, for participants randomly assigned to an ‘if…then’ implementation intention manipulation, who prepared by saying to themselves, ‘If I solve an anagram, then I will immediately start to work on the next on,’ this depletion effect was eliminated (they solved as many anagrams as the group who were not depleted beforehand).”

Make sure you read that quote – the results of the study are just awesome.

Basically, implementation intentions help you avoid procrastination during times of depleted willpower. Even when you feel tired, demoralized, cranky, grumpy, or whatever… implementation intentions help you stick to your plans.

They may very well be the thing that gets you to exercise after coming home from a tough day at work, even though you’re usually way too tired. “If I get home from work, then I start exercising.” Your unconscious mind will just pick up the cue (“arriving home after work”) and direct your behavior (“start exercising”) – no matter how tired or unmotivated you may feel.

Here are some other examples:

  • If it’s time to go to bed, then I write in my gratitude journal for 5 minutes
  • If the kids are in bed, then I will go directly to my room and meditate for 15 minutes.
  • If I feel like giving up during my workout, then I will just ignore it and keep going
  • If I arrive home from work, then I will prepare a healthy dinner
  • If it’s 10pm, then I will go to bed – no matter what.

4. Overcoming Any Other Obstacles

We all have different obstacles standing between us and our aspirations. In other words, we all procrastinate differently. You may find yourself goofing off on the internet too often. I may find myself playing video games or watching TV instead of doing what I intended to do. Someone else will struggle with social media addiction.

The point is, you need to determine your personal list of procrastination-enabling distractions, temptations, and obstacles. What tasks do you usually procrastinate on? Why? What do you distract yourself with? And then you need to create plans to overcome them.

Here are some examples…

  • I get discouraged during my writing and then procrastinate: “If I get discouraged during writing, then I ignore it and just keep going.”
  • I tend to procrastinate when I’m in a bad mood: “If I’m in a bad mood and feel like procrastinating, then I just get started on some aspect of the task.” OR “If I’m in a bad mood and feel like procrastinating, then I ignore it and keep working.”
  • I feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the project I’m currently working on: “If I feel overwhelmed by a task, then I just get started on some aspect of the task.” OR “If I feel overwhelmed by a large project, then I break it down into small, actionable steps and immediately get started on the first step.”
  • I want to get up early, but I can’t stop myself from using the snooze button and sleeping in: “If the alarm clock wakes me up in the morning, then I immediately get out of bed.” OR “If I feel like hitting the snooze button, then I just ignore the urge and get out of bed immediately.”
  • I always give up at the first sight of boredom or tiredness. I can’t seem to work for more than 60 minutes: “If I feel bored or tired, then I will ignore it and keep going.”

Your Turn

If you’re done reading this article, then you form at least one implementation intention to overcome procrastination.

Thank me later.


P.S. More Tactics to Overcome Procrastination

Implementation intentions are just one of many research-backed strategies to overcome this dreadful habit...

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Nils Salzgeber

Recovering online gaming addict. Recovering procrastinator. Recovering perfectionist. Meditator. Book author. Online teacher. Personal coach. Arsenal FC Fan.

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