Creating Plans That Work — The Power of Implementation Intentions

There’s a lot of folk wisdom about failed intentions. The road to hell is paved with plenty of good ones, we’re told. Even Saint Paul struggled with self-control: “For I do not do the good that I wish, but the bad that I do not wish is what I practice” (Romans 7:15).

Fortunately there’s a healthy body of research about creating intentions that actually lead to behavior change. These include the theory of planned behavior, BJ Fogg’s work on Tiny Habits, and Peter M. Gollwitzer’s studies of implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions specify the context in which a planned behavior will occur. They are stated in a “if-then” format — context first, behavior second.

Some examples that Gollwitzer gives are:

  • If it is 5pm on Monday, then I will jog home from work.
  • If it is Saturday at 10am, then I will select 5 low-fat dishes from my cook book to make during the week.
  • If I start to think about my favorite snack, then I will immediately ignore that thought.
  • If I have walked up one flight of stairs and see the elevator, then I will tell myself “I can do it! I can take the stairs all the way up to my office.”
  • If my heart starts to race, then I will start my breathing exercise.

Implementation intentions are designed to overcome two big problems with changing our behavior.

One is simply getting started. We can frame the most beautiful intention in the world — and then forget to act on it. Or, we might have second thoughts about the intention at a critical moment and miss an opportune moment to act.

The other challenge is sustaining a planned behavior. Here the obstacles are getting distracted and reverting to existing habits — especially when we feel distress or other negative emotions.

When done well, implementation intentions solve both problems. The planned behavior is cued automatically at a critical moment — without the need for deliberation, willpower, or motivation.

Implementation intentions are useful for your personal experiments in behavior change. You can also use them to create sentence completion exercises for readers.

The trick in either case is stating intentions effectively. Gollwitzer offer these guidelines:

  • Tailor your intentions to the specific challenges that you face — starting a new behavior, sustaining it, or both.
  • Write out your intentions using the if-then sentence structure.
  • State contexts and behaviors with details about exactly what you will do, where you will do it, and when.
  • Choose a context that you’re sure to encounter.
  • Plan a behavior that you can actually do in that context.
  • Make sure that each context cues only one planned behavior.
  • Make sure that your values, goals, and intentions are all aligned.

To learn more about implementation intentions, see: