Reaching Goals with Implementation Intentions

Making goals is only half the story on the long road to achieving them. For a person to successfully reach a goal, he or she first has to avoid many temptations. Along the way, there may be more compelling goals, activities or opportunities to pursue. You are left wondering what will help you reach that goal in a convenient way, a way that makes use of the less is more heuristic. Luckily such a system exists and is called implementation intentions; ‘I will do Y when situation Z presents itself’. This article will explain the way implementation intentions work and how you can best benefit from them.

To better understand implementation intentions the first focus will be upon goal intentions; ‘I am planning to achieve X’. This is in itself a good thing to do, to set a horizon and know what you want to do. To be as successful as possible a goal intention should be both challenging and specific. It should be able to give you feedback, be proximal (rather than distal), framed as a learning goal (rather than performance), and promotional (rather than prevention). A good example would be ‘I am planning to write one article next week’ (see that one part is missing however). By making a goal intentions you are committing yourself to the goal. The only bad luck is that goal intentions only predict 20-30% of the variance in behaviour, or in other words, it is not very predictive of future behaviour.  This is where implementation intentions make their contribution.

An implementation intention specifies how, where, and when you are going to achieve your goal. You are now not linking yourself to the end goal, but you are linking yourself to the fact that you are going to react a certain way in a certain situation. Implementation intentions, via this mechanism, lead to the automating of the goal-directed behaviour on the moment the situation occurs. The control over the behaviour is given to the environment. The less is more heuristic at work here is that you will not have to constantly remind yourself about the goal, only when a certain situation occurs you will perform the goal-directed behaviour. The conscious and effort-full control of the goal-directed behaviour is being automatically controlled by selected situational cues.

Let us now consider two examples of implementation intentions directed to support our earlier goal intention. One to promote the achievement of the goal could be ‘I will work on my article the next time I am at the computer and on the internet’. This is a cue that will most definitively occur in the coming week and allows the person to achieve the goal rapidly. Implementation intentions can also be used as peripheral statements, for instance, to stop behaviour that inhibits productivity. One statement could say ‘I will read my articles when I am on my computer’, through this the person will do his homework first and only then write an article.

Knowing now what goal intentions and implementation intentions are, it is vital to know how effective they are. The most effective way of implementing implementation intentions is to make them for difficult-to-implement goals. There is a high likelihood that you will be tempted to do other things (for instance, watch a series on the internet) and implementation intentions can effectively steer you to do the goal-directed behaviour. For more easy-to-implement goals an implementation intention has a little extra effect since a person was already likely to reach a goal. This does however not mean that it has any negative effects and can always be used.

To take home is the advice to use implementation intentions. The theory behind the principle is easy and making use of implementation intentions is even easier. Every time you make a commitment to achieve a goal you will specify when to execute the behaviour. This will help you develop both good habits (e.g. I will do my exercises whenever I open the curtains) and reach difficult goals.

References & Further Reading:

1. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions – Strong effects of simple plans.American Psychologist54, 493-503.

2. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstatter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology73, 186-199.

3. Sheeran, P., Webb, T.L., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,31, 87-98.