Reach Your Goals with Implementation Intentions
Friday, May 5, 2023

Reach Your Goals with Implementation Intentions

There's a reliable science to following through on your goals, and it's simpler than you'd think.

How often have you said, “I’m going to do more exercise,” “I’m going to eat healthily,” or even “I’ll stop checking Facebook when I first switch on my phone”? And, how often do you actually follow through with your plan? Well, help is at hand to help you stick to these goals in the form of implementation intentions.

You may think that all you need is motivation to exercise more. Unfortunately, motivation alone is not enough to get us moving. Implementation intention is a scientifically proven method to improve our chances of success and boost productivity when adopted in the workplace.

What is Implementation Intention?

In simple terms, an implementation intention is a self-regulating plan of what, when, and how you’re going to do something. It aims to help you stick to a routine or achieve a goal by creating a plan in the form of:

If X happens, then I’ll do Y.

Let’s say you intend to exercise regularly. The phrase “I will exercise regularly” is too vague, basically an empty statement. Instead, you need to specify exactly when, where, and how you’ll strive for your goal. Your implementation intention becomes something like, “I will do 20 minutes of exercise in the front room after I wake up at 7 a.m.”

The idea is that when you awaken at 7 a.m. the following morning, you’ll head to the living room and exercise for 20 minutes because that’s what you said you’d do. Your plan's what, where, and how have arrived, and the situation matches exactly what you committed to.

Why Does Implementation Intention Work?

Implementation intention is a strategy first developed by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. He recognized that people struggle to translate their goals into actions, often due to procrastination, distractions, and bad habits.

Gollwitzer’s studies found that people were two or three times more likely to do what they intended to do when they defined their goals. When you commit to doing something in a specific manner, you’re less likely to avoid or shy away from acting when the specified situational cues arise. The natural and easier course of action is to follow the plan rather than steer away from it.

Implementation Intention: Backed by Science

Since Gollwitzer developed the strategy, there have been hundreds of scientific studies helping prove that implementation intentions help people stick to their goals.

One of the most cited studies is a great example of implementation intention at work. Scientists divided 250 volunteers into three groups:

  • Group 1 was instructed to exercise and report back.
  • Group 2 received a lecture on the consequences of not exercising regularly, such as health problems.
  • Group 3 received the same lecture but was also asked to add an implementation intention and specify when, where, and how they would exercise.

Participants reported back after two weeks, and the results were conclusive. Although 35% of participants in groups 1 and 2 reported doing some form of exercise during the two-week period, there was a dramatic jump to 97% of exercisers in group 3.

The reason appeared to be that many people in groups 1 and 2 were either too busy or simply forgot they were supposed to exercise. Group 3 proved that having specific intentions increases the chance of doing what was asked.

Another study found that 100% of women performed a breast self-examination when they created an implementation intention, compared to just 53% of those who didn’t.

Even the U.S. government has employed implementation intentions to increase voter turnout. During phone calls about their intention to vote, people were asked questions such as “What time are you planning to go to the polling station?” and “What route will you take?” Asking these questions forced potential voters to formulate a voting plan — an implementation intention — that ultimately led to an increase in those voters actually turning up to the polling station.

The Drawbacks of Studies

Most of the research into implementation intentions was carried out during the late 1990s and early 2000s, meaning it never took into account modern lifestyles. Today’s use of technology and the advancement of the internet means that even if you state what, when, and how you’re going to do something in advance, there’s always the possibility that things don’t go as planned.

Let’s say your implementation intention is to clear out your inbox after eating your lunch at 12:30 p.m. At 12:29 p.m., a notification pops up on your phone. It’s the boss asking you to call a client when you get a chance. Instead of sorting the inbox, you finish lunch and begin preparing to contact the client. Your boss — or rather your phone — has dragged you away from your implementation intention.

Or, how about when the alarm goes off at 7 a.m., and you’re still feeling drowsy? Instead of getting out of bed to start exercising (which is what your implementation intention was), you reach over to the bedside table, pick up your phone, and get caught up scrolling through Instagram posts and Facebook feeds. All of a sudden, it’s 8 a.m. and time to get ready for work.

So, what does this all mean? Implementation intentions are great for getting things started and completed. However, you also need to take into consideration factors that could potentially prevent you from carrying out your task at the time planned. Push notifications, interruptions from colleagues, social media, and that afternoon energy lull are all considerations that need to be addressed when using implementation intention as a productivity booster.

Incorporate Implementation Intentions Into Your Life

Implementation intentions can be used to focus your mind and behaviors on the things you want or need to do. Whether the goal is to exercise more, reconnect with an old friend, eat healthily, or begin tasks at work, introducing implementation intentions into your daily life can help you achieve results.

Instead of your plan being to “Write a report for the board” by the end of the day, you could use the implementation intention “I will write the report for the board during my deep work session starting at 10 a.m. until 12 noon.” You now have a clear plan of when you’re going to focus on the report, so you’re prepared to get started when 10 a.m. arrives.

Even better, try breaking large tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Implementation intentions are great for helping you focus on the smaller components of the bigger picture.

  • I will gather research at the beginning of my deep work session.
  • After I’ve finished the research, I’ll create a graph with the relevant data points.
  • Once the graph is created, I’ll write 2–3 paragraphs summarizing the findings.
  • Etc…

Using implementation intentions provides a clear plan of when and how you’ll eventually achieve the ultimate aim of the completed report.

Overcome the Drawbacks

It’s no good having good intentions if you let distractions interfere with your plans. Unfortunately, we’re all prone to allow external sources, such as our phones, colleagues, website advertisements, and social media, to interrupt us, which can result in not carrying out our intentions.

Being prepared for these distractions ahead of time can help you stay on track to achieve your implementation intentions at the planned times.

Form your to-do list from your implementation intentions and create a daily schedule. Use your most productive times as deep work sessions, and plan to tackle the most difficult tasks. When your energy levels are usually at their lowest, work on lighter, more simple tasks.

Switch on the Do Not Disturb or Focus Assistant on your phone, laptop, and other devices to prevent notifications and other interruptions from pulling you away from your well-crafted intentions.

Use Implementation Intention to Achieve Your Goals

Setting goals and achieving results are two very different things and implementation intentions can help you do both. If you find yourself going for lunch instead of exercising, heating up a microwave meal instead of cooking a healthy meal, or scrolling through social media before breakfast, use implementation intentions to change your habits.

This scientifically proven technique could help you stop procrastinating and putting things on the back burner. Defining how, when, and where you’ll execute tasks creates a schedule that will help you complete them when the time arises and bring about the desired results.

And, if you stick to your intentions, you’ll begin to form new habits in both your personal and working life that should ultimately help you achieve more and become much more productive.

Nicole Sell
LinkedIn Profile

Reach Your Goals with Implementation Intentions FAQs

What are implementation intentions?

Implementation intentions are a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an "if-then plan" that can lead to better goal attainment. It’s a concept from psychology that involves clearly defining when, where, and how you will take the actions needed to reach your goal.

How can implementation intentions help me reach my goals?

Implementation intentions work by making your action plans automatic. By specifying in advance the where, when, and how of your actions, you're more likely to act when the situation arises. This is because your intended response is automatically triggered by the situation, reducing the need for willpower.

What is the difference between a goal intention and an implementation intention?

A goal intention is simply stating what you intend to achieve (e.g., "I want to exercise more"). An implementation intention, on the other hand, specifies the details of how you will achieve this goal (e.g., "If it is 7 am on a weekday, then I will go for a 30-minute run in the park").

Can I use implementation intentions for any type of goal?

Yes, implementation intentions can be used for a variety of goals, whether personal, professional, health-related, or otherwise. The key is to identify the specific actions needed to achieve your goal and when and where you will take these actions.

How can I create an effective implementation intention?

Start with a clear goal, then identify the specific actions needed to achieve it. Next, specify exactly when and where you will take each action. Your plan should take the form "If situation X arises, then I will perform behavior Y."

How do implementation intentions reduce the need for willpower?

By creating an if-then plan, you're setting up an automatic trigger for your intended action. The specified situation automatically cues the action, reducing the need for conscious effort or willpower.

Can I create multiple implementation intentions for a single goal?

Yes, if a goal requires multiple actions, you can create an implementation intention for each one. However, keep your plan simple and manageable so it's easy to remember and follow.

Can implementation intentions help with habit formation?

Absolutely. Implementation intentions can be particularly effective for establishing new habits. By specifying a consistent cue for your desired behavior, you make it more automatic and thus easier to establish as a habit.

What should I do if I fail to act on my implementation intentions?

It's important to treat any lapses as temporary setbacks, not total failures. If an implementation intention isn't working, you might need to adjust it. Ensure the cue is clear and the situation is one you encounter regularly. Your intended action should also be achievable.

Can implementation intentions help overcome procrastination?

Yes, implementation intentions can be particularly effective against procrastination. They work by specifying exactly when and how you will tackle a task, which can make it easier to get started. Plus, by linking your action to a specific cue, you remove the need to decide when to act, which can often cause delays.

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