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Implementation intentions: The secret to achieving your goals

Intrinsic motivation and inner commitment

Wondering why it’s so hard to lose weight or change your eating habits? Setting your goal might be the first step to achieving it. But by far not the last. If you’ve ever worked towards a goal, you will know that the intention to achieve is simply not enough when it comes to turning plans into actions. It takes time, patience and an effective strategy to stay on track. Read more to discover the powerful method you may have been missing.

Firstly, why do we fail?

Intrinsic motivation and inner commitment are the basics you need to successfully reach an objective. However, this is not enough. In fact, in most cases people do not achieve their goals despite good intentions. This is because they simply fail to act upon them. The most common reason being that there are too many challenges to overcome and additional efforts to make. You might have experienced this yourself: Although you really wanted to become fitter and work out more often, you faced problems implementing your plan. Weather, work, family, lack of time and your social life are just some of the obstacles standing in your way.

How effective planning strategy can help you achieve goals

Motivational psychology has examined how set goal intentions can lead to actions and the actual achievement of goals. One effective strategy was found to be the so-called “If-then plan”, otherwise known as implementation intentions. Now, what does this mean? It is a strategy plan which enables you to reach your goals by modifying your behavior. How does it work? In addition to formulating your goal intention (“I want to achieve X!”), you also need to specify when, where and how you want to behave in order to achieve this goal: “If Y occurs, I will do Z!”. Note that Y can be either a specific time and place, e.g. Monday 8 a.m., or a particular situation or event, such as arriving at home. Z is thus the goal-oriented behavior you will do whenever Y occurs. Stick with us.

How should I formulate my implementation intentions?

Be honest with yourself: Which situations distract you from your goal? What things make you weak? When do you start making excuses? Pay attention to these situations and consciously decide to change your behavior when they occur. The visualization of your goal might make it easier for you to identify these situations. Let’s say, your goal is to lose weight. You keep making up excuses to skip your workout. Also, you cannot hold yourself back when it comes to food. Your implementation intentions could then look like this:

  • “When I wake up, I will instantly put on my running shoes before doing anything else and go for a run.”
  • “When I finish work at 6 p.m., I will directly go to the gym for one hour.”
  • “When I go out for dinner with my friends tonight, I will order something without carbs.”
  • “When I arrive at home, I will take the stairs instead of the elevator.”
  • “When I feel like snacking in the afternoon, I will grab an apple instead of my usual muffin.”

Why do implementation intentions work?

Studies show a higher success rate of goals which were realised with planted implementation intentions than of those without such plans. Why is that so? Here comes the explanation for the scientific geeks: By following the if-then reasoning, a specific situation becomes part of a concrete plan. Adding specifications like “when”, “where” and “how” to your plan leads to a better perception, attention and memory concerning the respective situation. Without much conscious effort, the goal-directed behaviour which had been defined before, will then be performed automatically. This delegation of behaviour control to particular situational cues and stimuli in the environment is what facilitates the initiation of specific actions, as it basically frees the decision maker from hesitations and weighing ups. In other words: You already took the decision of how to behave before you even faced the situation where you actually have to decide. Sometimes it’s worth outsmarting yourself.

Developing a habit takes some time. So don’t be overeager with your if-then plans. Start with small steps and find out how easy it is to outwit your weaker self. Then gradually formulate more and more implementation intentions. The bottom line: You start to consider any kind of situation as an opportunity for goal attainment. Use failures to stay on track with your goal achievement to refine your implementation intentions. Maybe you missed a specific situation which requires an if-then plan to align with your goal? That’s ok. Don’t let those failures drag you down. Stand above that and remember all the things you were already able to change. This will give you the confidence that with every new habit you introduce to your life, you will get one step closer to your goal.