How to Set Yourself Up for a Growth Spurt This Summer – Part 2

When it comes to setting goals, we know that all goals aren’t created equally. If you want to have the greatest chance of ultimately reaching your target, you can maximize your success rate by selecting a goal that really means something to you.

But that’s only part of the equation. While the mere act of identifying a meaningful goal makes you more likely to reach it, there remains a big gap between having a goal and actually achieving it.

And this is where most of us get stuck. Heck, most of the time we don’t even get started – and even when we do, we tend to get off track somewhere in the middle. So how can we successfully close the gap between where we are and where we want to be?

Implementation intentions.

What are implementation intentions?

If you read Part 1, you’ve already done the work of ensuring that you have a strong commitment to the goal itself. And hopefully you’ve settled on your big fat juicy goal for the summer. Something like, “I will learn the Rococo Variations” or “I will lose 10 lbs.” Psychologists call this a goal intention.

That’s fine and dandy, but now it’s time to figure out how you intend to achieve this goal. And not by creating any old plan. A very specific sort of moment-to-moment action plan, containing the exact wheres, whens, and hows of your goal. Something like, “If lunchtime rolls around and I haven’t practiced the Rococo Variations yet, I’ll go to the practice rooms and start with them right after lunch.” Or, “If I go to Trader Joe’s for groceries, I will get bananas for desert instead of donuts.” Note the if-then format, as in “If I encounter situation X, then I will perform the goal-directed response Y”.

What you are doing is laying out in advance (pre-programming, if you will) the key behaviors that will help you realize your goal. Psychologists call these implementation intentions (but I’m just going to call them “if-then’s” from here on out).

The idea is to:

  1. Make you more aware of opportunities to seize the moment and take a step towards your goal
  2. Create a stronger link between critical situations (i.e. moments where you could take a step backwards) and the appropriate response
  3. Automate the right response (a bit like creating a positive habit)

Otherwise, the day will likely pass by without your having moved any closer to your goal. Not because you are lazy or don’t care about your goal. The world is just darn good at throwing things in our path to distract us (in the form of tasty brownie bites at the checkout counter or roommates who want to hang out at the pool all afternoon).

Pretty straightforward, right?

It does seem pretty simple, but the real-world impact of taking a few seconds to create these if-then plans is pretty significant.


For one, these if-then’s seem to have an impact even outside our conscious awareness. In a study of participants with a phobia of spiders, those who created stay-calm if-then’s had significantly reduced activity in the visual cortex, 120 milliseconds after being shown a picture of a spider. This is notable, because it takes much longer than 120 milliseconds to consciously tell yourself to calm down.

Willpower (or lack thereof)

It also seems that if-then’s save us from having to be so dependent on sheer willpower to power through to our goal. We know this from studies of individuals who often struggle with self-control – for instance, folks with substance abuse disorders or children with ADHD. In one study, hospitalized heroin addicts were asked to write a short curriculum vitae before the end of the day. Half formed if-then’s about when and where and how they would start their cv, while the other half formed irrelevant if-then’s about where they intended to sit at lunch, when they wanted to eat, and how they planned to start their meal.

By the end of the day, 80% of the folks who had formed relevant if-then’s had succeeded in turning in their CV. Meanwhile, none of the participants who formed if-then’s about lunch had written a CV (and in case you were wondering, no, the researchers did not report on how successfully the participants’ lunches went).

Getting started

If-then’s can also increase our success rate in the getting-started phase, and make it more likely that we take the first step. In one study, participants were asked to write a report about how they spent Christmas Eve, to be completed sometime in the subsequent two days. Those who formed an if-then about when, where, and how they planned on getting started were three times as likely to write the report than those who set a goal, but no if-then’s.

Researchers have even done studies to see what kind of impact if-then’s would have on goals that involved behaviors most people aren’t particularly fond of doing (like performing breast exams, cervical cancer screenings, eating a low-fat diet, recycling, or physical exercise). In all of these cases, participants were more likely to engage in these behaviors if they created if-then’s.

Take action

So here’s how to create your if-then’s and get going with your growth spurt.

  1. Take your top goal
  2. Imagine successful attainment of your goal. What will that be like? What will it look like? How will you feel?
  3. Now contrast that with the present reality. What’s standing in your way? What could keep you from achieving that goal? What are the bugaboos that you know will crop up to deter you from making it there? Where are the key opportunities to act and make strides towards your goal?
  4. Write down if-then plans for what you intend to do in these key situations
  5. Now go out there and make some things happen!

The one-sentence summary

Less vowing. More planning.

photo credit: PaRaP via photopin cc

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5 Responses

  1. Noa –
    Excellent follow-up to the previous post of this topic. I am struggling to get back into writing because I was sick for a while. It is so quickly to lose the habit, but takes such effort to create it. I will try the If..Then statements to get me back on track.

    Thanks! –

  2. Hi, Dr. Kageyama,

    I have a bit of an odd question, and one that perhaps ought to be written in response to the first of these two posts re: summer goals. Regardless, here’s the situation:

    I’ve been playing mandolin for about six months now. While life’s busy, I always try to get in about 30-60 minutes a day of practice and I love it (I absolutely love playing mandolin — I love how it feels in my hands, how it sounds… everything), and I try to just flat-out play for a while, too. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to play with violinist friends, but usually I play along with MP3 tracks. (Gotta make do, sometimes!)

    I’d like to start setting some solid goals, especially for the summer, but I don’t feel like I’m far enough along to know what a good goal(s) would even be. What’s realistic? To me, a goal needs to be difficult enough to keep me pushing through the learning plateau (I read “Mastery” by George Leonard, a book you suggested — loved it!) but still have a reasonable chance of being achievable. If it’s too easy, future goal-setting could shrugged off or I could become content with small accomplishments. If it’s too difficult, frustration could set in as the “deadline” looms and the goal stands nowhere near being achieved (or achievable).

    Any thoughts or advice? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Good question. At the end of the day, the point of a goal is to simply get our butts off the couch, get us headed in a specific direction, and let us know how our plan is working out. We tend to assume that we’re supposed to reach our goal, but often, that’s not the case. Goal-setting is an ongoing process – something you continue to evaluate on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to see if the goal you set is still meaningful to you, or if it needs to be tweaked, or thrown out entirely.

      You might find it helpful to reconceptualize goals as being a means to an end. Meaning, specific goals allow you then to formulate a strategy for reaching the target. The strategy, or path that gets you moving forward is the real key to change. The goal itself is just a tool to help you generate the path.

      I think if at the end of each day you can answer “yes” to the following questiony, you’re doing pretty well. The question is:

      Given that we tend to end up where we’re headed, based on the actions I took today, am I headed in the right direction?

      1. Fantastic! I see what you’re saying, and I definitely need to remember to keep goals malleable and thus relevant. A rigid and uncompromising goal can be as bad as not having one at all.

        Thanks again, and keep up the great work!

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