Let’s face it, change is hard. We have good intentions, but we don’t take action. Or, we take the first steps, but fail to follow through.
The solution? All it takes is a little planning. Or as science calls it, an implementation intention.
What Are Implementation Intentions?
Introduced by the psychologist Peter Gollwitzer in the 1990s, an implementation intention is a simple if-then statement: “If X happens, I will do Y.” “X” can be a certain time, place, or event, and “Y” is a set course of action.
For example, if you’re trying to floss more, you might say, “If I put toothpaste on my toothbrush, I will take out my floss.” Or, if you’re trying to drink more water, you’ll say “If it is 3:00 at the office, I will get up to get a glass of water.” In other words, “X” is a trigger, and “Y” is your response to that trigger.
Implementation intentions are designed to encourage good habits, like the examples above. But they can also help with larger life changes: as long as you break down your goal into smaller actions. If you’re trying to be a better communicator, for example, you might say “If it is 5:00 at the office, I’ll text my partner to let them know when I’m coming home.”
But implementations intentions can also be used to curb temptations or draw limitations for ourselves. For example, “If I get a craving to smoke, I’ll chew gum instead.” Or, “If I go out for dinner, I won’t spend more than $45 on my meal.” You can even make if-then statements for those times when you slip up on goals (“If I overspend at dinner, then I won’t buy coffee the next morning.”). This last aspect is key: while we often formulate plans to achieve our goals, we don’t always account for the times that we fall short.
Are They Effective?
Implementations intentions have a high success rate. For example, in one study, participants who were asked to write down if-then statements for exercising had a 91% success rate (i.e. 91% of the subjects actually ended up exercising). That’s opposed to the control group, where only 29% of subjects ended up exercising.
The reason if-then statements work so well is that our brains are naturally geared for absorbing information through contingencies. Not to mention, if-then intentions also eliminate the need to make choices in any given moment. Additionally, they give us a direct plan of action, which we are more likely to execute than if we rely on motivation alone. Try it out for yourself!