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?
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:
- Make you more aware of opportunities to seize the moment and take a step towards your goal
- Create a stronger link between critical situations (i.e. moments where you could take a step backwards) and the appropriate response
- 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).
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.
So here’s how to create your if-then’s and get going with your growth spurt.
- Take your top goal
- Imagine successful attainment of your goal. What will that be like? What will it look like? How will you feel?
- 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?
- Write down if-then plans for what you intend to do in these key situations
- Now go out there and make some things happen!
The one-sentence summary
Less vowing. More planning.