A Formula for Success: The Power of Implementation Intentions

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 22, 2012 · 45 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

If you’re like many men across the world, you probably set some new goals for yourself on January 1. Maybe it was to work out regularly or get into the reading habit. Or maybe you wanted to pay off your debt or increase your productivity.

Perhaps you did okay for the first week or two, but have already fallen off the goal-achieving wagon. Oh well. There’s always next year, right?

Hold on there, chief. No need to wallow in regret for the awesome life that could have been. There’s still hope for you yet.

To end this month-o-motivation, I set out to do a comprehensive post about all the ways to increase your chances of reaching a goal.

But as I waded into the research, what I found was that 1) summarizing all of the information required more of a book than a blog post, and 2) a lot of the methods didn’t personally strike me as all that helpful.

So instead I decided to cover the one tactic that was new to me, grabbed me the most, and most importantly, has been tested and shown to significantly improve your chances of successfully forming a new habit or reaching a goal.

This method is called “implementation intention,” and it’s a simple and effective way you can prime your brain for goal-achieving success.

What Stops Us from Starting and Achieving Our Goals?

Research has shown that the road to unfulfilled goals is paved with good intentions. By April, 50% of the people who made New Year’s resolutions have failed to keep them. And only half of people (and this number is likely inflated) translate their good intentions–whether made in January or any time–into real action. Interestingly, this is the same percentage of times that the average person is able to resist the four hours of unwanted desires they experience each day. Not too motivating, huh? In school, 50% is an “F.”

So what causes us to stumble on the path to our goals? Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer breaks the common obstacles down into the following categories:

Failing to Get Started with Goal Striving

Sometimes people fail before they even begin, because they have trouble:

Remembering to act. It sounds a little silly to say that people “forget” about their goals, but how often does this happen in our lives? We make it a goal to start reading 30 minutes before going to bed, but that night we start surfing the net, lose track of time, and not only don’t stop 30 minutes before bed, but end up hitting the sack an hour after we had intended to turn out the light.

Seizing the opportune moment to act. An opportunity arises to make good on our intentions and either we fail to recognize the opportunity in front of us, or we see it and don’t know how to grab it. The wife takes the kiddos to see her sister on a Saturday afternoon and you’re left home alone. It’s the perfect time to finish the dining room table you’ve been working on, but you turn on the game instead.

Second thoughts at the critical moment. Gollwitzer calls this “the problem of overcoming initial reluctance.” Here you do realize the opportune moment to fulfill your goal is at hand, you do know what you should do, but at the critical moment you have a difficult time choosing long-term benefits over short-term gratification. For example, let’s say you’ve made it a goal to take the physical side of the relationship slower with the women you date, but you’re kissing your new lady friend on the couch, and she smells so dang good…

Getting Derailed During Goal Striving

Even if you succeed in getting going with your goals, it’s rare that a one-time choice is all it takes to achieve them. Instead, you have to persevere in the goal, without letting these obstacles derail your efforts:

Enticing stimuli. It was easy to make reading a goal in the 19th century–what else were you going to do for fun? Now we’ve got choices coming out the wazoo. Studying every night seems like a good idea…but there are so many cat videos to watch!

Suppressing behavioral responses. This is a fancy of way of saying: “Old habits die hard.”

Negative states. Things like depression, stress, nervousness, and ego depletion sap your motivation to follow through on your good intentions. Simply anticipating a negative state has the same effect–hence, why you’ve thought about going to the doctor for a physical for the last five years and still haven’t made the call.

The Solution: Implementation Intentions

So those obstacles certainly stack the odds against you. But there is a way to fight back: priming your brain for success by formulating an implementation intention (“II”).

An II is simply a plan in which you link a situational cue with a response that will bring you closer to fulfilling your goal. To do this, all you have to do is reframe your goals as “if-then” statements. The “if” part is the situational cue; the “then” part is your planned response to that cue.

Thus your goal of “working out more” becomes “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday at 7AM, then I will leave for the gym.”

“I want to plan regularly” becomes “If it’s 9PM on Sunday night, then I will make my schedule for the coming week.”

“I want to save $2,000 this year” becomes “When I get my paycheck, I will deposit 10% into my savings account.”

“I want to reduce my caffeine consumption” becomes “When I get a craving for coffee, then I will drink a glass of water.”

“I want to be more patient” becomes “If I feel myself getting angry, then I will take three breaths.”

You’re probably thinking, “There’s no way that something so simple can actually work.” But over a decade of research and nearly a hundred studies have shown that not only are implementation intentions highly effective, they can actually double a person’s likelihood of achieving their goals.

In one such experiment, two groups of students were asked to write essays over their Christmas break about how they spent their Christmas Eve. The essay was due 48 hours after Dec. 24. Researchers gave one group of students a questionnaire requesting that they specify where and when during that 48 hour period they planned on writing the essay. Effectively, they were asking these students to create an implementation intention without them knowing it (“If it’s December 26 at 3PM, then I’m writing my essay at the library”).

The other group wasn’t asked to specify when and where they planned to write their essays. They didn’t create implementation intentions.

The result? Only 32% of the non-implementation intention students finished the assignment on time, while 71% of the students who created an implementation intention completed the task. In other words, the act of creating an II doubled the students’ chances of achieving the goal.

How to Form an Effective Implementation Intention

Make sure your goals are clear and strong. No amount of implementation intentions can motivate you towards goals that are vague or that come from “shoulding on yourself.” Your goals must be definite aims that you truly want to go after.

Identify your personal obstacles to starting and sticking with your goals. Is it that you don’t remember to do the goal during the day? Is it that you have second thoughts at the critical moment when you need to follow through?

Now it’s time to formulate an implementation intention that will overcome your obstacles and keep you moving towards your goal:

Create the “If.”  This is the situational cue that will either present an opportunity you need to seize or a temptation you don’t want to succumb to. Gollwitzer notes that “The occasion or critical situation specified in the if-part of the plan could be either an internal cue (e.g., a strong feeling) or an external cue (e.g., a particular place, object, person, or point in time).”

If I feel jealous of my friend…”

If an attractive woman catches my eye…”

Create the “Then.” This is the response you will commence once the “If” cue happens. The response is designed to keep you on track towards your goal, and it might involve thinking something, doing something, or ignoring something.

“If I feel jealous of my friend, then I will think about one thing about my own life that I’m grateful for.”

“If an attractive woman catches my eye, then I will try to talk to her.”

If there is more than one obstacle keeping you from a goal, you can make multiple II’s as long as they’re all plausible and don’t conflict with each other.

Make your “if-then” statements as specific as possible. Vague “if-then’s” create room for deliberation and thus the chance you’ll make a decision that torpedoes your goals. Not “If it’s the morning, I will wake up early” but “If it’s 6:00AM Monday-Friday, I will get out of bed.”

Write down your II’s and review them daily. Best to keep them fresh in your mind.

Why Implementation Intentions Work

Why does something so simple as formulating “if-then” statements work so well in helping people achieve their goals? There are a few reasons:

Eliminates choices. As we mentioned earlier, competing choices often act as obstacles to focusing on our goals. Implementation intentions effectively remove these choices by giving you a specific plan of action for the decisions you commonly face.

Heightens awareness of obstacles and opportunities. Creating your IIs forces you to brainstorm and plan for the critical situations that will come up along the path to your goal and how you will respond to those situations. This exercise heightens your awareness of the threats and opportunities that arise each day, helping you identify moments when you need to take action.

Automates responses. If you’ve already decided exactly what you’re going to do when a certain situation arises, then you won’t forget to act or miss the opportunity to do so, you won’t have to waste your time deliberating on your course of action, and you’ll be less swayed to choose short-term benefits over long-term ones in the heat of the moment. Basically, your reaction will become almost automatic. And as we learned last week, automating your decisions…

Conserves willpower. By “outsourcing” our decisions to our implementation intentions, we bypass the self-control-fatiguing deliberation process, which conserves our precious willpower–the fuel that helps us achieve our goals.

Are implementation intentions foolproof? Of course not. Our brains are perfectly capable of overriding even the most well-thought out II’s. But they are an incredible tool for tipping the scales in our favor.

What goal will you be turning into an implementation intention? Have any experience with implementation intentions? Share with us in the comments!

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Keith January 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Very interesting read. I would be interested in learning about some of the other methods your research turned up.

I recently implemented one to help me pay off some debt. I didn’t know about this method explicitly, but it is what I did. Hopefully I will have a significant portion payed off within the year.

2 Felipe January 22, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Nice read! I guess it’s like a programming language, but less restrictive (meaning we don’t get a blue screen of death when something goes amiss).

It’s really interesting, but I prefer writing things down – as you’ve written on one of the previous posts – because it “cleans” your brain from tasks you’ve already accomplished.

3 Dave January 22, 2012 at 7:02 pm

I think the biggest reason people fail at their New Years resolutions is (1) They don’t start (one of your points) and (2) They try and do it alone.

When starting something new it is always easier if you have someone working with you. It is much easier to keep going if their is someone encouraging you.

Great article.

4 Joe January 22, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I am probably the youngest viewer of this website. I started at age eleven last year and am proud to say I have been attempting to take advice from this site and this article I found to be truly a great article and that it could very well be a back bone to completing other objectives in other articles or of my own thoughts.

5 James January 22, 2012 at 8:11 pm

This is great. If (when) I am doing some writing tonight, I will jot down some II’s. Look at that, I’ve already begun!

The most important aspect of this for me has to be ridding myself of the “Suppressing behavioral responses” aka, Old Habits. Even with the best of intentions, those pesky “comfort actions” (as I refer to them) pop in from time to time and try and de-rail my progress. Any new tips that I can use to destroy those actions are welcome.

6 zeus January 22, 2012 at 9:07 pm

This is one of your best articles yet.

7 Ken January 22, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Great post! I look forward to trying this out. I am working on several goals including weight loss, getting debt free and competing in Tough Mudder. I have a lot of if-then statements to write.

8 Claude January 23, 2012 at 7:25 am

Covey said “Just because it is simple it isn’t obvious”. This method is a great example of simplicity that isn’t obvious. Instead of analysing why it will or won’t work, far better that we try it for ourselves. It completely aligns with NLP, so I have no doubt it will work.

9 tadeusz January 23, 2012 at 7:41 am

It is good that you improve credibility of your blog. This article is sourced with real science. That’s more reliable, than Theodore Roosevelt’s intuition that doing X might be a good idea and it worked for him personally.

10 Alberto Oliveira January 23, 2012 at 7:52 am

This reminds of me of when I was in the PUA community: there were indeed many recommendations to approach women automatically, like an if-then command, instead of trying to will yourself to do it each time.

Which brings me to an idea I’ve been toying with lately: I’m sure both the Art of Manliness and a PUA company like Love Systems could make some very interesting interviews to each other, with a lot of resulting wisdom for a community that probably overlaps more than we realize.

11 Mitch January 23, 2012 at 9:10 am

Good article. When I successfully quit cigarettes several years back I came across a helpful little tid bit in some literature that actually really did help and I will add to this thread: if you fall off the wagon on whatever your resolution is, many just throw up there hands and say “well that’s it, I failed, I’m off the wagon!” That’s the wrong answer. Be gentle with yourself, acknowledge a misstep was made and simply start again, as many times as you come up short start again each time with renewed resolve. Don’t let it be a one shot deal in your mind or you are unlikely to make it the long haul.

12 JG January 23, 2012 at 9:21 am

This seems like a great idea and I would love to implement it. However it becomes more difficult for a person whose day isn’t structured. For example, I could create an II saying “If it is 6:00 I will go to the gym”. However I can’t always be at home at 6:00. It all depends on how much needs to be done at work. One day I might be home at 4:30, another at 8:00. 6:00 is average but it seems like the method could fail after a couple of days in a row of 8:00 homecomings and getting in the habit of not going to the gym (It would be closed).

Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this? (24 hour gym is not an option… There’s only one gym within an hour’s drive and it closes at 7:00.)

13 Matty V January 23, 2012 at 9:32 am

Thank you for this article. I have already written my goals and placed them in IF/THEN statements.

I have made them my computer background so that I see them throughout the day.

You are offering a great service to men who are willing to listen and take action.

14 Andy January 23, 2012 at 9:34 am

I’ve decided to better my health and go to the gym regularly to swim, run and do weights. I’ve made the II statement that I will get up at 5:20 for weights and 5:40 for swimming since the pool opens at 6am. It’s hard to do, but even just being in the car on my way makes me feel good, let alone after the workout.

15 Matt January 23, 2012 at 9:57 am

I think I may be in the minority of men who are actually putting their money where their mouths are this year. I can’t say that I have ever tried the if/then statements before it almost seems a little too commonsensical to work. That’s not going to stop me from trying I’d though!

16 Ryan January 23, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I use and teach my staff to use the SMART goal system to help word smith their goals. The idea is to create action based goal statements that you can post somewhere to remind you daily.

Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Relevant
Time
“I will lose 20 lb by the end of the semester by working out 3 hours a week”

I will definitely add if-then into my training program.

17 Brent Pittman January 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Goals and Resolutions, Yeah I’ve fallen off the wagon some, but the wagon train is stil heading west. I’ve found that SMART goals are good, but they assume motivation. I’m reading Switch By Chip and Dan Heath and it’s one of the best books on motivation and changing behavior I’ve read in a long time. I’ll write a book review on it soon.

18 Frank January 23, 2012 at 2:26 pm

So true about remembering to act and seeking the opportune moment to act. It’s all those little moments that give us the opportunity to accomplish something big. For any big goal that you have, look for the small daily steps that will get you there and execute on those.

19 James January 23, 2012 at 2:49 pm

JG, I think a solution for you, along the lines of the II, would be “If I get off work an hour before the gym closes, then I will go work out”. While the structure isn’t as concrete, It’s still a marked goal.

Ryan, Kudos for the SMART suggestion, I have not heard of that system before.

20 LG January 23, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I just taught my students the SMART goal-setting idea. Really helpful in dialing down goals from “I want to raise my science grade” to “I will spend fifteen minutes a day reviewing my science material, and keep track of all my assignments in a planner, and submit myself to a sucker-punch from my brother if I fail to turn something in on time (kidding about that last part. Kinda.)”

But I love this “If-Then” idea, too, and can definitely see how it would help my easily-distracted high school freshmen manage their study period better! Thanks!

21 Dan January 23, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Just like Ryan above, I also teach SMART. The IIs will definitely find a place in my goal-setting lectures. Very similar to SMART, but streamlined and easy to do “on the fly”.

Heck, I’ve already written two IIs of my own sitting here reading the article.

Well done!

22 Claude Hall January 23, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Brett and Kate thank you for your contributions.

23 Thoms January 24, 2012 at 10:32 am

Nice Article! I have implemented very detailed IIs using my phone’s calendar. It was beeping 10 times every evening: go swimming, go lifting weights, go to shower, go prepare healthy food for tommorow, go learn foreign languages, don’t go to McDonalds, go sleep early and have good rest…… You can imagine how hard I failed. So my recommendation would be: start small. Don’t try to implement II for every desire and good advice there is. Just start with two or three and add more only after first ones are well automated.

24 Brucestus January 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Great article. I’ve written down 3 II’s for situations relating to my goal: quit dipping tobacco.

I’m 3 days into my work on this goal and this article comes at the perfect time. Very simple strategy, yet I think it will help. Eliminating that internal “deliberation period” and conserving willpower is a must for this type of goal. Thanks!

25 Billy January 24, 2012 at 1:05 pm

This is one of the best articles I have read on tools designed to help you reach your goals through controlling behaviors. Great piece! Keep ‘em coming!!

26 PRJ January 24, 2012 at 2:30 pm

@Joe – great to see a young guy gaining from this site. If I had access to a resource like this at age 11-12, I can only imagine the profound impact on my development. Feel free to shoot me an email if you ever want some feedback or critique of any of your ideas, projects or objectives.

27 ENG January 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

I came onto the site for the first time in a few months to see if there’s anything good to read, and suddenly I have 9 AoM tabs open. This site is too effective! Thank you for all the interesting, helpful articles.

28 tr January 25, 2012 at 2:06 am

LG jokes about the sucker punch from brother method, but I just quit smoking via a slap bet with a friend (inspired by a How I Met Your Mother episode)

29 abbdihakim January 25, 2012 at 8:48 am

i have really enjoyed and it’s my first time to read and its mervelous

30 abbdihakim January 25, 2012 at 9:02 am

And i can really say that it builds and give confidence but i hope i will follow up……………absolutely rediculous

31 ChrisBrown January 25, 2012 at 10:28 pm

Automatic Responses were the dopest part of this post and my favorite part of life. I’m automatically programmed to respond in a ton of situations.

The “if i see an attractive woman than i will try to talk to her” was kind of a let down. The subconcsious picks up on the “try” part of that and does EVERYTHING it can to fulfill it. If you’re constantly trying to do something, it’ll never actually get done. A slight slip of wording/programming can definitely throw your game off. Stay away from Try’s. “Do or do not, there is no try” – Yoda.

32 P.M.Lawrence January 26, 2012 at 5:33 am

Congratulations, Joe. I must say, you are more articulate than quite a few others I have seen commenting around here. That’s no disrespect to them, either – it’s just that you are beating the decent pace they set.

33 Matthew A. January 26, 2012 at 8:18 am

Another thing that makes this site a rare one: the comments after articles are actually worth reading. Great work Brett and Kate, I’m definitely going to be implementing this strategy with my own workout plan. And keep up the positivity comment people!

34 Robert Sodervick January 26, 2012 at 11:42 am

The sum of your accomplishments will equal the total of your committment.

35 Michael Ponzani January 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm

HOW CAN i IMPROVE MYSELF?

36 P.M.Lawrence January 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm

I can’t resist it – Michael, you can improve yourself by learning about the CapsLock key.

37 Edward January 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm

The point about getting to class early to review your notes is great advice; unfortunately, its been my experience that even if you manage to get there five to ten minutes before class the class that preceded yours will probably take a long time to clear out.

38 Ethelred January 31, 2012 at 10:11 pm

http://tinyhabits.com/ might be of interest. It teaches a process of building habits.

39 Brando February 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm

It’s the cat videos that are kllling me….

40 justin February 14, 2012 at 12:12 am

thanks again brett and kate. i love the simplicity of this article. much easier to digest than reading a 200 page self help book lol.

41 Sid January 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Hi AOM. This is the first time for me commenting on your article. First I need to repeat the general consensus of the commenters: THIS ARTICLE IS AWESOME! I have already been doing goal planning using milestones and deadlines to lead me to my final goal. A lot of the techniques I have learned from Brian Tracey’s work. However, the II just breaks goal planning down to a simpler and more implementable level.

I found one small thing in this article that I think should be amended. In the line:
“If an attractive woman catches my eye, then I will try to talk to her.”
Personally I believe the “try” should be removed. “Try” is a soft word, and when you tell yourself, “I will talk to her,” you are not leaving yourself another choice.

42 Ernie L January 25, 2013 at 5:10 pm

I was working out Tuesday and saw the Part of the Presidents Inaugural address and it tookme to four years ago when I was coping with an upcoming divorce. I used to say devasting divorce because it cost me a job and my home of 11 years. But in reality this divorce was the resolution of my marriage vows nothing more, nothing less and I added the drama, tears and frustrations plus copious amounts of liquor.

I was unemployed for 18 months, but did manage to go from 250 to 220 and I am at 217.8 right now. Two of my over all goals is to get my wine certification and hit 175 pounds.

I decideded to change my ways when I had a very bad incident with beer, I tend to only have two meals each day and on this day I skipped breakfast and lunch and was introduced to the best beer ever, a Goose Island Bourbon Porter which carries the alcohol of three beers. I lost my car and apartment keys iin my by alcohol induced haze.

I had read the Power Of Habit and learned how hard habits are to break. They wrote about how mice are put on electrodes that read their brain. They discovered that first yes the mice were thinking how to get through the maze then once it was learned their brains were not even used. They discovered a more rudimentary part of the brain took over so that the mice could learn new things.

So most of our behaviors once learned go into this rudimentary part of our brain without us even thinking about it. I was always losing my keys, after reading this book I made a commitment to always put my keys and wallet in the same place. I have come home not really thinking of what I am doing but I always find my keys now the next day.

I also started reading Super Brain and they made an observation about negative self talk and how this act impacts us for the worse. After my drunken stupor I was so disappointed in myself but this observation came to me about negative self talk and right then and there I made a commitment to change and figure things out.

I composed 12 goals on Dec 1st then I read somewhere where you have to measure and decided to do a 100 day challenge. Tuesday was the last day of the 1st 20 day period so I am going to post my work on my goals then try to beat this baseline for the next 80 days and hit 200 pounds.

Goal one-10%
Goal two- 80%
Goal #3. -80%
Goal #4. – 45%
Goal #5. -35%
Goal #6 – 90% exercising
Goal #7 – 75%
Goal #8 – 70%
Goal #9 – 70%
Goal#10 – 40%
Goal 11 – 75%
Goal 12 – 85%

Overall rate is 60.4% so this is my baseline for the next 80 days.
Weight is 217.8
Certification is a minus.

I really started on Dec 1 and I finally see progress. I have been to the gym 18 out 20 days and meditated 16 out of 20 days. It took me until Dec 26 to finally implament that goal and I am very afraid that I might just stop. Waking up at 6 am was terrible but I see a difference this week. since I had a mini streak of waking up at 6 for four days in a row.

I would say measure, remind your self every day, no negative self talk just start again.

43 Alan June 20, 2013 at 7:37 am

I just found this post yesterday afternoon, and have started my own II list to address personal, physical, and fiscal fitness.

As part of my physical fitness goals, last night and this morning I got my 12 pound sledgehammer and started my “Hindu Mace Training” workout. I left out a couple of the exercises, because I didn’t have a tire handy for the axe chop, and frankly, my knees aren’t up for squats (another area that needs improvement). But still, I’ve done the rest of the routine twice now. It takes me less than ten minutes now, although I plan to add more and stretch out the length. I’m really feeling it now, LOL.

I’m looking forward to getting home and doing it again. It seems like a great workout, because while the moves are strenuous, they’re fairly simple. There’s not a whole lot to remember about the technique. Basically if you do it wrong, you’re liable to smack yourself with a sledgehammer, that’s all.

I’m loving the AoM site, and looking forward to learning and sharing more.

44 La'Var JB November 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Very interesting and informing!!! Always looking forward to your knowledge

45 Max November 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Does anyone have a list of implementation intentions that they’d be willing to share? I’m just getting started and it would be awesome to be able to share ideas with people, especially since a lot of people on this site are interested in implementing similar intentions.

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