People generally have positive intentions but often fail to act on them. We all know that we should be making healthy lifestyle choices; like eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, getting plenty of rest, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and drinking moderately—or not at all. Information is not enough motivation for us to take action; only 6% of adults adhere to the top five chronic disease-preventing health behaviours . The question is how to ensure that the set goal intentions will reliably lead to the desired goal-directed behaviours and subsequent attainment of those goals. Most people lack the strategies and support required to change their behaviours, even if their life depends on it.
We often rely on motivation, willpower, and desire to move us closer to our goal intentions, but none of these can guarantee success. Achieving one's goals requires that certain goal-directed behaviours are built, but people are often unsuccessful in either initiating or maintaining the behaviours behind the goals. Many of us feel like we lack motivation when what we require is clarity. The good news is there is a simple strategy that we can use to double, if not triple our chances for success.
Introducing “implementation intentions”
The concept of implementation intentions was launched in 1999 by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. Studies conducted by Gollwitzer, in 1997 and earlier, showed implementation intentions resulted in a higher probability of successful goal attainment, by predetermining the behaviour required in response to a particular future event or cue .
This inspired a growing body of research to help determine ways in which peoples' goal intentions could be made more effective. Hundreds of research papers have now shown that implementation intentions are very effective at assisting people in sticking to their goals  like exercising, recycling, studying, getting to bed early, and quitting smoking.
Researchers in the United Kingdom took 248 people, divided them into three groups, and tried to help them build better exercise behaviours for 2-weeks .
Group 1: Were asked to track their exercise over the next two weeks (control grip).
Group 2: Were asked to track their exercise and were given some motivation reading material. The researches also explained many of the health benefits exercises could offer them (motivation group).
Group 3: Received everything that group 2 received, and where also asked to formulate a plan for the next 2-weeks. Each member in the group was required to complete the following sentence "During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE]” (intention group).
Motivation vs Intention
After the two weeks, 35-38% of the people in groups one and two managed to exercise at least once per week. Even though the motivation group were given additional motivation, it did not seem to make a difference. Or, as the researchers put it, “Motivation … had no significant effects on exercise behaviour.”
In group three, 91% of people managed to exercise at least once per week - that more than double.
The act of creating an implementation intention for exactly when and where they intended to exercise seemed to make all the difference. There is no question that making healthy behaviour changes requires motivation, willpower, and desire. But the need to achieve a goal is not the same as the steps needed to achieve a goal.
The Implementation Intention
The sentence that group three was asked to fill out is what researches call “implementation intention,” which is the plan you must make about the where and when the new behaviour must occur.
The cues that can trigger the behaviour may come in many different forms; when you hear an alarm, when you smell the food cooking, or when you get a notification on your phone, the most common cues are time and location.
What stops you from following through with your goals?
Far too many people try to change their behaviours without establishing a plan.
“I’m going to eat healthier.”
“I’m going to start exercising.”
“I’m going to start a meditation practice to help manage stress.”
“I’m going to get to bed earlier.”
“I’m going to be more productive.”
All of these vague goals never define when and where the behaviours required to achieve these goals are going to take place. We often leave it up to chance and hope that we will take action.
Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the right moment to take action. They wait for the motivation and the “perfect conditions” before they are willing to get started.
“I’ll start going to the gym once I get a little fitter.”
“I’ll start eating healthy once I get through the next month of birthdays and weddings."
“I’ll start meditating when I have more time."
“I’ll get to bed earlier once this busy period is over."
We all have good intentions, but our commitment is often lacking. The strength of commitment related to both the plan set and the goal is significant for the implementation intention to affect our behaviours. People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new behaviour are more likely to follow through . Once an implementation intention is set, you don’t need to wait for your motivation levels to be high.
“Do I go to the gym today?”
“Do I meditate in the morning or in the evening?”
When the time and location are locked in the behaviour will occur, there is no need to make a decision. Follow the intention.
Do you remember the game Cluedo? You have to figure out [WHO] murdered the victim, with which [WEAPON] and in what [ROOM]? A basic formula for an implementation intention is a little bit like Cluedo, hopefully without the murder.
“I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]"
"I will exercise at 6:30 pm after work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in my local gym.”
“I will meditate at 6:00 am when my alarm goes off on Monday to Friday, in my bedroom.”
“I will study for 90 minutes when I get home from school at 5:00 pm on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in the dining room.”
If you give your behaviours space and time, they will grow. If the time and location are visible, and with enough repetition, you will start to perform healthy behaviour automatically, even if you can’t say why?
Life can get in the way
It's important to understand that no matter how perfect your plan is, life can get in the way, and we don’t have to be 100% perfect. You might get sick; you might get stuck in traffic, you might need to say back at work or attend a social engagement. Try not to beat yourself up about breaking the routine once in a while. One great way to manage the unexpected is to have an “if-then” version of the implementation intention.
When an unexpected situation arises, you can use the phrase:
“If [SITUATION], then I will [BEHAVIOUR]”
“If I go out for dinner and eat something unhealthy, then I will eat more vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day."
“If I get home late from work, then I will meditate for 10-minutes before I eat dinner."
“If I get sick and I’m unable to exercise, then I will focus on my recovery by eating more vegetable and by getting to bed by 9 pm until I have fully recovered"
The “if-then” strategy gives you even more clarity around your intentions, which means you are less likely to fall off the wagon when unexpected situations occur.
Achieving your health goals
If you rely on motivation, willpower, and desire to inspire you to act, you are going to continue to struggle to change your behaviours. But if you can set an implementation intention and clearly define where and when you are going to perform your new healthy behaviours, you will start to create the time and space to live the life you desire. Behind every system of action, there is a system of beliefs. The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when your behaviours become part of your identity. The most effective way to change your behaviour is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become. Real behaviour change is identity change.
A person will perform better when set goals are challenging and specific as compared to goals that are challenging but vague (known as the goal-specificity effect) .
Motivation is short-lived and doesn't lead to consistent behaviour changes. If you want to achieve your goals, then you need a plan for exactly when and where you're going to do so. If you are struggling to find clarity with your health visions and goals, you may want to work with a health coach.
Health coaches are highly trained professionals who draw on their skills to support their clients as they work through those changes. They build strong, supportive partnerships that empower their clients to take the lead in their own progress. Health coaches facilitate change, allowing their client to become an expert on their own body, mind, and circumstances.
Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta‐analysis of Effects and Processes, Peter M.Gollwitzer, et al. 2006
Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. Locke, Edwin A., et al. 2002
Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Peter M. Gollwitzer, et al. 1997
A theory of goal setting & task performance. Edwin A. Locke, et al. 1991