Implementation Intentions – The Simplest Way For Achieving Your Goals
Let’s be real:
We all have certain goals and aspirations for our future.
Some of us want to get rich, some want to start a family, some want to own their own business, some want to just be happy, some want a master degree, some want to travel, some want to exercise more often, and some just want to smoke pot all day long.
Most of us fall off track during our goal pursuit. We get sidetracked, lose motivation, or just don’t follow through with the necessary actions (except for smoking pot maybe).
Frankly, we were never taught how to “accomplish a goal” and so most of us suck at it.
Oh well… it just wasn’t meant to be, right?
There is hope.
And it comes in the form of science, which has found a PROVEN tool that helps us achieve our goals.
This tool is called “implementation intentions”, and it’s a simple way to follow through with our intentions and do what’s necessary to attain our desired end results.
The 2 steps of goal attainment
There are 2 distinct steps of goal pursuit:
- Group 1: You decide to pursue a goal. You weigh your options and commit.
- Group 2: You take the necessary action steps to accomplish your goal. You are goal striving.
You first need to commit and intend to achieve a certain goal. And then you need to make it happen by doing the right things.
Let’s look at each step in a bit more detail.
Step 1 - You Intend to Go After A Goal
You need to decide what you want.
In other words, what is a worthy goal you want to pursue? Do you want get promoted? Finish a work project? Eat healthier? Procrastinate less? Be more productive? Read a book until the end of the week?
There are endless possibilities.
What’s crucial is that you truly want to achieve that goal. Don’t choose weak goals you won’t commit to anyway. The more you want it the better.
Research shows that strongly intending to pursue a goal already improves your chances of achieving the goal.
If you really want to get a raise at your job, and your colleague Jessica is only somewhat interested in doing so, you stand a marginally better chance of getting a raise.
Unfortunately, experiments show that a person’s intentions only slightly boost performance.
Yes, you might want to get a raise, but are you really going to do what’s necessary? Are you really going to follow through with it? Or are you getting derailed along the way?
That’s what step 2 is all about.
Step 2 - You Are Goal Striving
Once you’ve decided on a goal, you get into the process of goal striving.
This means you’re taking actions that help you achieve your goal. Maybe you need to read a book, create a daily habit, start on a project, ask a friend for help, go out in the woods, or just work hard.
The point is that you need to take the right steps to attain your goal.
And yes, you’re right:
That’s where most of us fail.
Setting a goal (step 1) is easy. Following through with it and actually achieving it? Not so easy…
Because we fall prey to obstacles along the way. If we can’t overcome them, we stand no chance of getting to the finish line.
Let’s quickly look at what science has found to be the most common obstacles.
What’s Getting In The Way? Common Obstacles to Goal Attainment
Peter Gollwitzer is a psychologist, leading researcher on the science of goal achievement, and the founder of implementation intentions.
During his years of research he has identified 4 common obstacles that derail us from reaching our goals.
1. Failing to get started
The first problem that can undermine goal achievement is failing to get started.
One way this occurs is when you simply forget to perform the right actions. This can easily happen because the necessary action is probably not a habit of yours or because it’s just so easy to get distracted in today’s world.
Another common problem with getting started is overcoming an “initial reluctance to act”. You know what the right thing to do is, but you just can’t get yourself to do it.
- Out of habit and because you’re distracted with speaking to your buddies, you grab a piece of cake. You only realize later that you wanted to eat healthy today. Whoops, you’ll just start tomorrow.
- You know you should get started with that project, but you just can’t get yourself to do it.
2. Getting derailed
The second obstacle between you and achieving your goal is getting derailed along the way.
You’ve made good progress on your goal pursuit, but something gets in the way and you get derailed.
- You’ve been eating healthy for a few weeks, but your friends talk you into going out and getting wasted with them. Worst of all, on your way home you grab a burger and some fries. (Sure as hell has happened to me haha!)
- You’ve made good progress on your report, but get distracted by Social Media and end up wasting hours on Facebook.
3. Not calling a Halt
The third problem is not disengaging from strategies that obviously aren’t working.
This principle can be thought of as “good money after bad,” where you just keep investing your time and effort in goal striving approaches that don’t work.
Many of us may be justifying our current paths without realizing that we should just change the approach.
- You’re not losing any weight on your low fat diet, but you keep at it nonetheless.
- You’re writing your report while listening to your favorite music and while chilling on Facebook. You don’t make any progress, but for whatever reason you don’t change the approach. (Howbout you stop multitasking?)
4. Overextending oneself
The fourth common obstacle that undermines goal attainment is overextending oneself.
It basically means that you run out of willpower.
And with an empty willpower tank, your chances of following through with certain goal striving actions are near zero.
- You had a tough day at work, come home completely tired, and don’t feel like cooking healthy. You end up eating junk food.
- You want to continue your project after 10 hours of straight hustling at work. Your willpower is depleted and you can’t get yourself to do it.
So there you have the most common obstacles holding you back from achieving your goals.
They are not getting started, getting sidetracked along the way, not changing ineffective strategies, and not having enough willpower.
But there is good news:
Implementation intentions can help us overcome all of them.
So let’s move on…
Formulate A Plan to Take Action And Overcome The Obstacles
OK, those obstacles suck, but to accomplish your goal, you need to overcome them.
The best way to do that?
You create a plan.
You create a plan to overcome the obstacles and achieve your goal (duh!).
Sounds simple, yet is scientifically proven to work like magic.
In one of Peter Gollwitzer’s early studies the participants had to write a report two days after Christmas Eve about how they spent their holidays. There were two groups:
- Group 1: They had to specify where, when, and how they were going to write the report (in other words, they created a plan).
- Group 2: They didn’t create a plan.
Of the participants who made a plan, 71% sent the report back in to the researchers. Of participants who hadn’t formed a plan, only 32% sent back a report.
The simple act of making a plan more than DOUBLED the chances of attaining the goal.
And guess what!?
It gets better…
As Peter Gollwitzer conducted more studies, he came to realize that plans worked especially well when they took on the particular form of an “if-then” statement.
Enter: Implementation intentions.
Plans On Steroids: Implementation Intentions
So what are those implementation intentions anyway?
They are if-then plans that predetermine how you will act in a certain goal-relevant situation.
You basically just reframe your plans as “IF --> THEN” statements.
The “IF” stands for the situational cue and the “THEN” stands for your planned response to that cue.
“If situation x arises, then I will perform response y.”
Here are some examples:
- “If I feel like hitting the snooze button, then I immediately jump out of bed as fast as I can.”
- “If I feel tempted to eat a cookie, then I put it away somewhere I don’t see it.”
- “If I catch myself wasting time on Facebook, then I immediately close it and get back to what I was doing.”
Implementation intentions define when, where, and how you want to act on your goal.
You may be thinking, “That’s all? No way! That would be too simple.” But yes, that’s all. Almost one hundred scientific studies prove the effectiveness of implementation intentions. They have a “medium-to-large” impact on actual behavior and significantly increase the likelihood that people achieve their goals.
Implementation intentions help people get started on tasks, protect themselves against distractions, and help them overcome counterproductive but habitual behaviors.
I found one study particularly interesting.
Twenty drug addicts experiencing withdrawal symptoms committed to writing a short résumé before 5pm that day (hospital staff encouraged them to write résumés so they may find work upon their release from treatment). They were split up into two groups:
- Group 1: They made implementation intentions for achieving the goal
- Group 2: They made no plan for achieving the goal whatsoever
At 5pm 8 of the 10 addicts who had created implementation intentions had written their résumés. Of the 10 addicts who hadn’t created any plan, none had done so. None. No one. Not. a. single. one.
The point is:
Implementation intentions work. They have been PROVEN in almost one hundred studies. They have a medium-to-large impact on actual behavior. And they significantly increase the likelihood that people achieve their goals.
Let’s look at how to create them.
How To Formulate An Implementation Intention
To form an implementation intention you need to identify a goal-relevant situational cue and link it to a goal-directed response.
You can use this simple 3-step process:
First, choose a goal that you would like to accomplish (remember, the stronger your intention, the better).
Second, think about possible ways to achieve your goal and possible obstacles that could stop you. Do you need a certain daily ritual? Do you need to read something? Do you need to remember something? Do you need to stop doing something?
Third, put your ideas and obstacles into if-then plans.
(Note that the “if” could be any situational cue, not just an obstacle. It could be a specific time, behavior, place, object, thought, or whatever. Don’t feel like you need to come up with obstacles to use this tool.)
Frankly, you just need to fill in the blanks here:
“If _______________ (situation x arises), then I will _____________ (perform response y).”
Simple as that.
Let’s look at a few examples of goals and possible implementation intentions.
Example 1 - Using Implementation Intentions to Lose Weight
Weight loss is a common goal that many people are struggling with.
Let’s look at how we could use implementation intentions to help with achieving this goal.
- If I get on my laptop at 7pm tonight, then I order the #1 bestselling weight loss book on amazon.
- If I get up in the morning, then I immediately put on my sneakers and go for a 20 minute run.
- If I get home from work, then I immediately cook myself a healthy meal (even if I don’t feel like it).
- If someone offers me an unhealthy snack, then I stay resolute and decline the offer.
- If it’s the 3.5.2016 and I’m not happy with my results after 3 months on a low fat diet, then I’ll change my approach and try a low carb, high fat diet.
- If I feel like giving up, then I call my…
- If it’s 7pm tonight, then I start looking for a coach.
- If I feel like giving up, then I call my coach.
Let’s look at another example…
Example 2 - Using Implementation Intentions to Stop Procrastinating
I’ve been struggling with procrastination all my life, so here are some of the ways I’m using implementation intentions to overcome this obstacle.
(This works like a charm!)
- If I get up in the morning, then I immediately drink a glass of water and then start my morning meditation.
- If I’m getting on my laptop for the first time in the morning, then I immediately start working on my most important task without checking email or Facebook, or anything else.
- If I feel myself procrastinating, then I immediately mentally contrast, feel motivated, and get started with the necessary task right afterwards.
- If it’s 5pm, then I do deep work without distractions for another 2 hours.
- If I don’t feel like doing what needs to get done, then I do it anyway (YES!). (Over time this becomes a powerful habit.)
Is this a complete procrastination cure? Naw.
Does it help me procrastinate less often? YES!
So if you’re struggling with procrastination yourself, try this out… it works.
Example 3 - Using Implementation Intentions to Become More Productive
We could probably all waste less time and be more productive.
Let’s look how implementation intentions can help.
- If I’m done reading this article, then I order Brian Tracy’s book “Eat That Frog”.
- If I feel like hitting snooze in the morning, then I immediately get out of bed.
- If I get home from work, then I immediately eat something healthy and don’t watch TV.
- If it’s 10pm, then I turn off all electronics and go to bed for some pre-sleep reading.
- If I find myself on Facebook during work, then I immediately close it.
- If I’m working on my laptop, then I block all distracting websites with a tool like coldturkey.
Works like gangbusters.
And you can truly use it for anything.
Aight, let’s sum this up…
We all have goals and aspirations for our future.
And we all have to overcome obstacles to achieve those goals.
One GREAT way to overcome obstacles and increase the likelihood of actually achieving our goals are implementation intentions.
They work by reframing our plans in the form of “IF --> THEN” statements.
“If situation x arises, then I will perform response y.”
Research has shown in almost one hundred studies that implementation intentions have a “medium-to-large” impact on actual behavior and significantly increase the likelihood of people achieving their goals.
(I can personally attest to that.)
Best of all, you can literally use this tool for anything and everything.
Whether you want to become healthier, exercise more often, become a better father or mother, earn more money, get a raise at your job, travel the world, or just smoke pot all day long…
So have you used implementation intentions before? If yes, how’d it go? If no, what are you planning to use them for?
NOTE: You can make implementation intentions even more POWERFUL by combining them with mental contrasting. Combined these two tools are then called WOOP - a goal-setting method that works even better than implementation intentions alone.
You can learn more about it here: WOOP - Science's #1 Method for Goal Achievement and Habit Change
Thanks for Reading
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It’s about time that science tells us how to achieve our goals. Though I think the biggest reason people fail at reaching their goals is 1) they don’t even start in the first place (as you’ve mentioned) and 2) they try to go at it alone.
Starting something new is always hard and if you’ve got a partner in crime, it just gets so much easier. That’s at least my experience.
Great point! Having a partner definitely helps a ton.
Great read! I look forward to trying this out in my own life. I’m currently working on many different goals.
I have a lot of implementation intentions to write lol!
Awesome haha. I have an entire list as well. The good news: they work very well!
[…] can create this new response surprisingly easily by using pre-decisions or so-called implementation intentions. You simply pre-determine how you will react when the alarm clock goes off in the […]
Thank you for this. I’m going to use this for productivity, beating procrastination, saying ‘no’ to distractions, time-management and for achieving short and long-term goals.
Nice, man. It’s really a great tool!
Thanks, I love this article and love the fact that it is science backed.
It’s hard to believe, it feels too simple to be true but since it is coming from so many researches I am going to try it and give feedback after a month.
Yeah, I agree. It’s surprising that such a simple strategy can be so effective.
Thanks very much for the brief summary.
My pleasure, Nirosha.
I have a goal in life but could not stay motivated for a long time.
I hope this if and then the technique will work. if it works then I will definitely achieve my goals. Thanks for sharing
Thank you for such elaborate explanations!
My pleasure 🙂
Thank you so much great advice and I will share your wish wisdom
Cheers, Dean 🙂
i need to make if then plan for my patient and his guardian .. the goal is brush twice daily ,, brush fir 2 minutes.
can you please help me…..