2 Ways to Shrink the “Intention-Behavior Gap,” Improve Your Follow-through, and Get Things Done

I had big plans last weekend to cut my dog’s hair, clip his toenails, and give him a nice bath, so he’d be nice and clean and not so scruffy-looking.

As you’ve probably already suspected, none of this happened, and our little hairball remains pretty scruffy and little bit stinky.

And a smelly dog is certainly not the end of the world, but often, there are bigger, more meaningful goals in our lives that never come to fruition, despite our best intentions. Like entering a big international competition. Learning all six Bach cello suites. Or composing your own cadenza.

These intentions are an essential first step, of course. Because you’re not likely to accidentally find yourself at the gym at 6am or see grilled veggies on your plate at dinner unless you intend and plan for these things to happen.

But intentions don’t guarantee action. Even if they’re totally genuine and heartfelt.

Researchers call this the intention-behavior gap. And it can be pretty frustrating to really, truly mean to do something, yet consistently fail to make progress.

So is there anything we can do to shrink that gap? To get our actions to line up more consistently with our goals and intentions?

Two strategies

A recent review of the literature highlighted a number of factors that can help us be more successful in reaching our goals.

But at the end of the day, there were two strategies that were particularly noteworthy, when it comes to turning intentions into action.

Strategy #1: If-then plans

The first strategy has actually come up before (read it here), and involves making “if-then plans,” or “implementation intentions.”

The gist, is that it’s not enough to simply set a goal. Because as much as you might want to do the Indianapolis competition, life happens, and you suddenly get this craving for Burger King fries on a Friday night, which leads to a trip to Target with your roommates for Super Soakers and water balloons, which ends in a really late night, a sluggish start on Saturday, an unproductive weekend, and the beginnings of a pattern that may not be consistent with what it takes to make a good video by the application deadline.

Researchers have found that in addition to a meaningful goal, we also need contingency plans and pre-determined intentions for how to respond when life inevitably tosses a distraction in your path. Like one of those frustrating days where all of the “good” practice rooms/pianos are taken. Or the temptation of guiltily binge-watching one more episode of Cobra Kai , even though it’s past your bedtime.

For more resources and training on this strategy (great for teachers), go to Angela Duckworth’s resource site here.

Strategy #2: Progress monitoring

The other strategy is “progress monitoring.”

Which is based on the idea that once you have a goal in mind, regularly keeping track of where you are relative to that goal makes it easier to see what adjustments need to be made along the way. Whether that be as simple as putting in more work, or modifying your approach.

For instance, let’s say I set a goal of losing 10 lbs. in 6 months. That’s a pretty clear goal, but imagine how tricky it would be to make progress if I only weighed myself on Day 1, and again at the end of 6 months. How would I determine what adjustments I should make to my nutrition and exercise habits along the way? And how motivating would it be to remain in the dark about whether or not my efforts were paying off?

Seems pretty logical – but do things actually work that way?

3 key factors

A meta-analysis of 138 studies on progress-monitoring found that progress-monitoring does in fact help – and a few variables in particular appear to help increase the likelihood of realizing one’s goals.

1. Frequency

Like the weight-loss example above, more frequent progress monitoring was associated with greater success in realizing one’s goals. Within reason, of course, as it’s not like weighing myself every 5 minutes is going to help me lose more weight. Then again, hmm…that would be a lot of extra walking…

2. Public vs. private monitoring

Monitoring one’s progress publicly (like sharing your step count or the path of your morning run with friends) was also more effective than monitoring one’s progress in private.

3. Physical records

Keeping a physical record or log of one’s progress relative to the goal (i.e. “self-recording”) also resulted in greater success than keeping no record of progress.

So…how would these three strategies translate into music?

Take action

Well, let’s apply progress monitoring to the goal of participating in a major competition.

This would require a certain amount of repertoire, to be learned, performance-ready, and recorded by the application due date.

And based on friends who have participated in live rounds in previous years, you can probably get a sense of the level at which these pieces need to be played, in order to make it to the live competition.

So having established a target to aim for, keeping physical records would translate into doing a recorded run-through of exactly what you would be recording for the application. In exactly the kind of environment that your recording will take place in. To serve as a comparison between today’s level of playing, and your target level of performance.

Monitoring progress publicly might translate into doing a mock recording, with a friend standing in as the recording engineer. And then asking your teacher or some other friends for feedback on the latest video. Or gauging your progress by playing regularly in studio class – not just when your repertoire feels “ready.”

And engaging in such progress monitoring activities more frequently, well before the actual recording session, will enable you to make adjustments to your effort and practice strategies throughout the preparation process.

For instance, you might realize based on the latest recording that you need more slow practice. Or more intonation work. Or that perhaps things have gotten too careful and boring, and your ideas aren’t coming across clearly enough.

Ideally, I think the goal is for progress monitoring to be less about judging whether you sound good or not. But more a tool you use to evaluate the effectiveness of your actions. To help you decide which actions or practice strategies might lead to better progress next week, and in so doing, give your motivation a little boost, and shrink that gap between your best intentions and your follow-through.


Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31(1), 17-26. doi:10.1080/01443410.2010.506003

Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., … Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 198-229. doi:10.1037/bul0000025

Sheeran, P., & Webb, T. L. (2016). The Intention-Behavior Gap. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(9), 503-518. doi:10.1111/spc3.12265

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


4 Responses

  1. Great Stuff. I would add the following strategies that have been helpful to me:
    Strategy #3 – Eliminate unnecessary and/or destructive distractions from your life (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, endlessly checking email).
    Strategy #4 – Meditation or similar mindfulness practice on a regular basis
    Strategy #5 – A physical/mental warmup helps you transition into your project more efficiently
    Strategy #6 – While working on your goals, take frequent breaks. Keep the body moving.
    Strategy #7 – Choose wisely. Pick projects that inspire you, get comfortable saying “no” to yourself and others more frequently.
    Strategy #8 – Make a few clear/simple notes in writing when you finish work for the day, to help you pick up where you left off seamlessly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!


The weekly newsletter!

Join 45,000+ musicians and get the latest research-based tips on how to level up in the practice room and on stage.



Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.