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Imagine this scene:
You’ve set your SMART goal, you’ve detailed your objectives, you’re motivated to follow the plan you’ve set out for yourself, and you know exactly what the end result is going to be because you’ve done your research–and while you’re prepared to have to push yourself, you also know your goal is totally attainable, so when you wake up on December 12th, you will weigh exactly 140 pounds.
You’re into week three and you’re doing great…but then you wake up on a Tuesday a little groggy and you think to yourself, “I’m going to take today as one of my skip days for the gym.”
Then on Thursday, it’s a co-worker’s birthday, and while you had already met a friend on Monday for lunch to catch up, you can’t really decline the invitation to celebrate with the rest of your office.
And then the weekend comes around and you need to make up for skipping the gym on Tuesday in order to get your 5 days in, but…you stay out late Friday night and have a lot to do on Saturday so you just stick with 4 days for this week.
Your goal was specific, but you’re slipping.
What went wrong?
According to research, while it’s common to have the motivation to workout and get fit, there is one thing that those who succeed do differently than the rest. This critical step was uncovered in a two week study completed in 2001 in Great Britain, in which 248 people were separated into three groups, each of which was tasked with building better exercise habits.
The control group was asked to track how often they worked out. The second group was asked to read about the benefits of working out in addition to tracking their workouts. They were also told about the long-term health benefits of exercising. The third group did everything the second group did, but added one more element–they were asked to write down a specific plan detailing when and where they would workout during the study by completing the following sentence:
“During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”
Ninety-one percent of those who completed this sentence exercised at least once a week, which was more than double the results of groups one and two, in which 35% and 38% exercised at least once a week, respectively.
Those who created an intention for the implementation of their goal were more than twice as likely to achieve it.
And, for more studies on implementation intention, here is an analysis of almost 100 others that all have similar results.
In this article, we will explore the implementation intention concept a bit more, and then we will look at 10 examples that you can tailor to your life to achieve your goals.
What Is Implementation Intention?
An implementation intention is a strategy used to follow through with the goals you set for yourself. These intentions require making concrete statements in the form of “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].” to lead to higher chances of achieving your goals or modifying a current behavior. These statements predetermine the when and where portions of goal-directed behavior that will occur in response to a particular trigger or cue in the future.
All of your habits are made up of a habit loop, which details the cue, routine, and reward that comprise your actions. Think about something as simple as brushing your teeth in the morning–the cue is waking up, the routine is brushing your teeth, and the reward is having fresh breath. Another common habit is checking your phone: the cue is feeling your phone vibrate, the action is looking at your phone, and the reward is knowing whatever information has just been sent to you.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses using this strategy to increase your chances of following through with your goals. He argues that motivation is not the key to achieving your goals because everyone has some level of motivation to change if they’re creating a goal in the first place. It’s the planning of exactly what you’re going to do to make that change that’s critical.
By having an implementation intention, you’re giving yourself a safety net to catch you when your initial feelings of motivation aren’t enough, or when you’re given a choice: “Do I get out of bed and work out today or should I do it some other time?” Your implementation intention takes out the need to make this decision, which is helpful because, according to James Clear, having to make decisions can reduce your willpower.
What makes implementation intention so effective is that it leverages the two most powerful cues, which are time and location. In his book, James Clear reminds us that it’s all too common to create vague goals that get you nowhere. But, by answering the questions when? and where? you will form concrete plans that don’t leave your success up to chance.
If you keep waiting for the “right time” to make a change, you’re probably more in need of a sense of clarity than a sense of motivation. With an implementation intention, you don’t need to wait for what feels like the “right” time to come along, you simply follow the plan that you’ve created for yourself, leaving all of the guesswork out of it.
Writing these intentions will also help you create a new normal–a new “autopilot” to live on–because the preceding cue will always lead to the desired action.
You can also use this “if-then” strategy to resist temptation or to prevent yourself from engaging in an unwanted behavior. For example, when you wake up tired on that Tuesday morning, you could have the implementation intention in your back pocket saying, “If I feel lethargic in the morning when it’s time to go to the gym, I will drink a glass of ice-cold water with lemon.”
So what habits are you building right now to help yourself become the person that you really want to be? No matter how much talent you have, you still need to engage in relevant, positive habits to be successful.
Let’s look at 10 examples of implementation intentions that you can tailor to your own life to help you get there.
10 Examples of How to Specifically Achieve Your Goals
1. Goal: Get in Shape
I will either run on the treadmill, work out on the step machine, or exercise on the elliptical machine for 40 minutes every weekday before work from 6:00-6:40am at the gym.
2. Goal: Save Money
I will write down what I buy and its price whenever I take out my wallet either in a store or when shopping online.
3. Goal: Build a Meditation Habit
I will meditate for ten minutes after brushing my teeth in the morning and at night on my meditation cushion.
4. Goal: Overcome Shyness
I will look the clerk in the eye, address them by their name as indicated on their name tag, and ask them how they’re doing every time I check out at the grocery store.
5. Goal: Drink More Water
I will drink 20 ounces of water with each meal every day.
6. Goal: Lose Weight
I will bring cut up fruit to work for a mid-morning snack every day to prevent myself from going across the street to the bakery and eating a donut before lunch.
7. Goal: Reduce Stressful or Angry Feelings
I will take a break and go for a 5-minute walk outside to cool off whenever I start to feel tense or angry.
8. Goal: Stop Procrastinating
I will complete my Most Important Task first thing in the morning as soon as I sit down at my desk at work every day.
9. Goal: Open a Small Business
I will work on my business’s social media page every day as soon as I finish dinner.
10: Goal: Pay Off Debt
I will pay $75 toward my debt every time I receive a paycheck.
Here is an extra tip: Try to build your intended behavior into the parts of your day that you know will never change. For example, coupling your meditation with brushing your teeth can be helpful because you know you will brush your teeth twice a day, so you will always have those triggers to signal you to practice your meditation. Similarly, you know you will eat three meals a day, so you will drink those 20 ounces of water accordingly.
Final Thoughts on Implementation Intention
By giving your positive habits a specific time and place in your life, you will help ensure that they don’t end up on the backburner. Next time you’re trying to start a new habit or avoid engaging in a negative behavior, create an implementation intention like the ones laid out in this article to help you secure a positive outcome. Be sure to define the time and place of the habit so clearly that you’re left with no wiggle room.
After you repeat the desired action enough, you’ll feel an urge to engage in this behavior regularly without even having to think about it. When you do this for multiple habits, you will find yourself living with a routine that benefits you in all areas of your life, both short-term and long-term.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.