Defining Implementation Intentions and How to Make Them Work In The 21st Century

One of my favorite self-regulation strategies. The one that has the potential to increase the chances of making a habit stick. It’s having a plan when things aren’t unfolding precisely as you envisioned – and they always kind of don’t. Or the so-called implementation intentions technique created by Peter Gollwitzer in 1999.1

What Mr. Gollwitzer observed after running an experiment – more about that later. It’s that when you have difficulties staying on track with your goals or when a particular dessert is seemingly calling your name – welcoming you to eat it and disturb your diet. It’s much easier to stay on track and avoid the seductive bad habits. When you have pre-made plans in the form of implementation intentions for every bad thing you can do, that can steer you towards pigging out on some not-so-healthy meal.

Or in other words, in combination with setting healthy habits. You also create a list of fallback behavior in the following format:

Whenever situation X arises, I will summon the goal-directed response Y.

It’s almost like adding snippets of code in your brain that will be triggered based on predefined conditions.

All of this makes it sound like our progress is more associated with our ability to anticipate critical future situations. And, from there, assign positive protective alternative behavior. Not with what happens in the actual moment of temptation.

But based on my experience – and I’m quite confident that you will relate to this. You can’t always avoid temptation, regardless of the precision of your plans.

Especially these days. In the age of distractions. When you are a click away from disturbing your flow.

our-habit-plans-vs-reality
Our intentions vs reality.

I wonder what Peter Gollwitzer would have written today. Observing humankind listening to podcasts at 3x speed, while pursuing Inbox Zero, while nervously refreshing Instagram, while pretending they are paying attention to the Zoom call they don’t need to be on in the first place.

Is there an intention implementation for that, Mr. Gollwitzer?

You don’t know, right?

I figured.

Problems of habit attainment are manifold. The first set of issues is getting started with a good habit. But the toughest part is when it’s time to practice the new behavior and something more pleasant appears on the horizon.

In these moments, we quickly reschedule the set of actions we intended to do. Thinking, that in the future, we will finally wake up with a sense of discipline and adherence to a routine we have never displayed in our existence so far.

As I’ll show below, the theory of implementation intentions does offer a plan to carry out our good intentions. Yet, it’s not an impenetrable strategy. Especially in our modern world full of all sorts of distractions.

What Is An Implementation Intention?

Implementation intentions are self-regulating strategies – created in advance in the form of “if X happens, then I will do Y.” That aims to help you achieve a goal or stick to a certain routine.

You pre-commit to respond to a certain situation in a specific manner. This makes you less likely to steer away from your desired destination. Or, in relation to habit formation, less likely to not do the behavior you intended to do.

The advocates of the strategy – the founder, and all other scientists who later researched the topic. Even state that when you’ve formed a document containing how you will respond to an event that can prevent you from exercising – if a daily habit of yours is exercising. Since you already formed a tactic on how to act. You’ll – seemingly – automatically steer away from the bad behavior and execute the good one.

Peter Gollwitzer states:

“Action initiation becomes swift, efficient, and does not require conscious intent.” Peter Gollwitzer

What Is An Implementation Intention Example?

An implementation intention example if the desired habit is exercising regularly will be specifying when, where, and how you will exercise. For example:

  • My desired habit: Exercising daily.
    • When: When I wake up in the morning at 07:00 AM.
    • Where: In the living room.
    • How: Using my mat, and set of dumbbells. The exercise itself will be based on a pre-selection from YouTube.

Following the strategy introduced by Peter Gollwitzer – i.e., “If situation X occurs, then I will do Y behavior.” And what was introduced in the original paper documenting the whole concept. This means that your environment becomes your cue. And you pass the control of your behavior to the environment.

Basically, what supposedly should happen if you set implementation intentions like the ones above. It’s that when it’s morning, you will be “automatically controlled by selected situational cues.” Or to put it bluntly, I shouldn’t have problems exercising when I get up because it’s morning and I wrote down that in the morning I will exercise.

Since the surrounding environment matches what I said I’d do. This should be enough for me to start sweating.

Why Are Implementation Intentions Effective?

The desire to start a new habit is not, on its own, a sufficient motivator to start pursuing this new behavior. But when you furnish this longing to form a new behavior or goal with implementation intentions. The results drastically change.

A study conducted in 1997, found that 100% of women who crafted implementation intentions in relation to when they would perform breast self-examination eventually performed the examination – compared with just 53% of the control group.2

The reason these strategies work is that they make things specific.

“I intend to exercise” is a vague statement. It doesn’t mean anything certain.

  • When?
  • How?
  • With whom?
  • How often?

All of these questions remain unaddressed.

If you are to announce the above heroic wish when the new year starts – like a lot of people do. Or after having a particularly large dinner – again, like most people. You will get a sympathetic smile from the people who don’t know you yet, and probably make your best friends laugh their lungs out – because they do know you.

But if you expand it with, “Starting tomorrow, I will exercise daily by doing one aerobic video in the living room at 6.00 PM when I get in from work.”

Now, your claim is no longer an empty statement. It’s specific. You have a start date and you clearly said what exactly you are going to do. Plus, you will probably wow your friends. There may remain a bit skeptical. But your clarity will surely amaze them.

An experiment proved that getting specific with your intentions increases the chance of making something happen.3

A group of scientists conducted a study with nearly 250 volunteers divided into 3 groups:

  • Group 1 was the control group. They were instructed to exercise and to report back.
  • Group 2 was based on the Protection motivation theory (PMT). Basically, these people were lectured about what happens when you don’t exercise regularly. That a sedentary life can lead to substantial nasty consequences – developing coronary heart disease.
  • Group 3 was also lectured on the importance of exercising but in addition, asked to specify when, where, and how they will exercise – add implementation intentions.

The final results were in favor of group 3.

Results-of-the-implementation-intentions-experiment
This graph shows the percentages of exercisers in the three experimental groups at each time point. The source of the numbers is based on the mentioned study.

While around 35% of the first two groups did report partaking in exercises during the first two time periods. There is a significant difference between group 3. Where 97% continued to exercise in the time period 3. Also, the study mentioned that none of the participants in group 3 did report forgetting to exercise. Whereas, 14% of group 1 and 19% of group 2 said that they forgot that this is something they are going to do. But this was not the main reason people from groups 1 and 2 failed to practice. The main excuse was “I’m too busy.”

Do Implementation intentions require conscious effort?

Formulating a plan for when and where you’ll perform the desired habit creates an extra benefit: Initiating the actual behavior is seemingly automatically triggered.

As we said above, if you set a rule to work out in the morning. The early hour itself should be the only kick in the butt you need to start executing.

The authors of the research papers “swear” that by encountering the cues mentioned in your oath leads to automatic initiation of the desired behavior.4

But is this still true?

Or are the statistics in all these scientific papers outdated material?

Personally, I do think that formulating a plan about when you’ll do something increase the likelihood of doing it. However, at the same time, I don’t think that this behavior ever becomes automatic and indestructible.

The Problem with Implementation Intentions

Did you notice anything strange with the theory of implementation intentions?

On paper, it looks perfect. You say what you are going to do. Then, you specify when and how exactly you are going to do this thing.

But the problem I have with this self-regulatory strategy is that it doesn’t take into account the actual moment when you are going to do the thing.

Imagine that you do wake up earlier than usual to exercise – precisely as you intended. From here, you don’t only have to tackle the problem of getting up – waking up doesn’t mean getting up. But you also have to do the even harder work – not succumb to the distracting tech. Or more precisely, ensure that you do not roll over, check your phone, and get caught up in the frenzy of messages and Twitter threads.

This means that using implementation intentions shouldn’t require only stating when you’re going to do something in advance. But also considering what can potentially prevent you from doing the thing at this exact moment and having a strategy for that, too.

With all of these things in mind, let’s see how we can create an implementation intention for the 21st century.

How Do You Create An Implementation Intention?

All the research papers I shared and their claims that implementation intentions will cure your idleness were probably working when the studies were made – between 1997 and 2005. But what these scientific papers fail to address – because of what happened after 2007. It’s how the new internet – social media, shopping sites, and all other sorts of distractions – disturbed our daily behavior.

Yes, there are hundreds of studies that confirm the power of setting implementation intentions for sticking to our goals, adding new habits into our lives, or simply reminding us of our plans.5

But do these really work in the 21st century where big tech firms are bombarding us with all sorts of distractions that are nearly impossible to fend off?

I don’t think so.

For some, setting a plan will be enough of a motivator.

But rarely do all people have inhuman willpower and monk-like resistance against distractions.

We need more than just a fancy behavioral intervention.

Here’s what you can do to carry out an implementation intention in the noisy 21st century:

1. Get specific on when you are going to do what you want to do

This is the classic implementation intention one-liner.

Or basically,

After/before [behavior], I will [desired behavior] in [location] at [time].

Here are three examples:

  • Right after work, I will continue progressing on my HTML course in the living room at 06:00 PM.
  • Right after I get up, I will pick one workout from the ones I saved and exercise for 10 minutes in my bedroom at 07:00 AM.
  • Before starting work, I will write down my 3 to 5 priorities for the day in my office at 09:00 AM.

2. Consider what can go wrong in advance

What can go wrong? What can lure you into darkness?

For instance, if you want to lose weight. A common blocker is resisting sugar-intense food.

But instead of relying on your willpower every time an urge emerges from the core of your body commanding you to visit the fridge. You can remove all sugary items from your house and add apples and carrots instead. Your desire to eat a waffle won’t disappear. But there won’t be any for you to eat.

Or, if you want to reduce your expenses. For every time you see something online that interests you. You can grab a notebook and try to answer these questions:

  • When and how will I use it?
  • Can I borrow it?
  • Do I really need it, or do I mostly want it?
  • Can I use what I already have?

Then wait at least 24 hours before finally deciding.

For every potential obstacle, you might face that can steer you away from your goal. You can try to think about a solution that will steer you back to doing the thing you intended.

3. Think about how you will act when unexpected things happen

It’s foolish to think that we can prepare for every situation. I’m not going to sit here and try to explain that you can create a bulletproof plan that will act like a helicopter parent.

This third step is the most important one. It’s about the times when you know what you want to do. But your emotions steer you away from your plans.

For instance, I know that I have to write every morning. But sometimes I fall into a rabbit hole of videos and lectures that are not in line with what I’m writing.

These moments of pleasant distractions can be tackled with the following set of self-observing questions separated into two parts:6

Part 1:

  • What am I feeling now?
  • What am I thinking now?
  • What am I doing at this moment?

The goal with these is to acknowledge what you are actually doing. Commonly, we act on autopilot. One link online leads to the next, then the next, and so on. As soon as we realize what happens. We are nervously searching for something new to get because we were inspired by the perfect lives of others online.

But once you acknowledge your current behavior and the created intentions. Once you stop your mindless behavior. You can proceed with answering this next question:

Part 2:

  • What do I want for myself in this new moment?

When we bring our attention to our actions and see that they are not in line with what we actually want. When we create space for self-observation. We also create opportunity to re-direct our actions.

When I did the above exercise the other day. I felt dissatisfied.

I found myself in an hour-long online session where I was looking at office furniture ready to replace my existing desk and setup. When I paused for a moment to ask: What am I doing? I realized that it was all provoked by a simple email where a person was offering cool office setup equipment. After I answered the first set of questions. I was now in a position to tackle the last: What do I want for myself at this moment?

Do I a) want to spend half of my salary on new equipment and spend a whole weekend renovating? Or, am I b) OK with what I have, and I can continue with my writing session?

Well, I closed all the tabs crushing the operating power of my laptop and I moved along.

Of course, you will not – myself included – always act with such mighty wisdom and prevent stupidity on 100%. Occasionally you will give in to your impulses. But when you do, if you stop and observe what steered you away from your desired behavior. You can draw insights that will help you do a bit better next time.

Some Closing Thoughts

If we look at the basics.

Nothing survives.

No. Not me. Not you.

We are fragile creatures perishing in time.

It’s reasonable to think that your desired habits won’t survive, either. Occasionally, we simply won’t do what we verbally expressed that we will do.

Yet, having a strategy that will protect your sacred behavior is a useful toolset that will bring you closer to the goal and most importantly. When it’s about habits, focus on you doing the habit itself.

As the famous author, Austin Kleon said:

“Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).” Austin Kleon

Setting implementation intentions does exactly that. It focuses you on the actual work you need to be doing (the habit). Not so much now what you are trying to achieve.

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Footnotes:

  1. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493–503. On the web: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-05760-004
  2. Sheeran, Paschal & Milne, Sarah & Webb, Thomas & Gollwitzer, Peter. (2005). Implementation Intentions and Health Behaviour. First publ. in: Predicting health behaviour /ed. Mark Connor. New York: Open Univ. Pr., 2005, pp. 276-323. On the web: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/37367761_Implementation_Intentions_and_Health_Behaviour
  3. Milne S, Orbell S, Sheeran P. Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. Br J Health Psychol. 2002 May;7(Pt 2):163-84. On the web: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14596707/
  4. Sheeran, Paschal. (2005). Intention–Behavior Relations: A Conceptual and Empirical Review. On the web: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279613604_Intention-Behavior_Relations_A_Conceptual_and_Empirical_Review
  5. Prestwich, A., & Kellar, I. (2014). How can the impact of implementation intentions as a behaviour change intervention be improved?. European Review of Applied Psychology, 64(1), 35-41. On the web: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1162908810000186
  6. Adapted from the great short book How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry
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