How to Get Motivated With Implementation Intentions
Does This Ever Happen to You?
Do you ever have something you want (or even need) to accomplish but you never seem to take that first step? There are many different reasons that happens. Maybe you keep putting off opening that IRA or college-savings account for your kid because you haven’t decided what stocks or mutual funds you want to invest in. You may want to go to the gym every afternoon but you always find a hundred other things that need to be done around the house, so you always put it off until tomorrow. Maybe your job is very stressful and you want to use a relaxation technique in especially difficult situations, but you never remember to do so. Or perhaps you have a co-worker who always makes irritating comments to you, but you always wait so long to decide how to respond that you miss the opportunity. If you’ve experienced these kinds of situations and wish you could respond differently, you can use a strategy called implementation intentions.
Professors Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D. of New York University and Veronika Brandstätter-Morawietz, Ph.D. of the University of Zurich conducted research that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Their research measured the effect of implementation intentions on achievement of stated goals. In this context, the term goal doesn’t have to mean some big, long-term plan you have to accomplish something over the course of a year or more. It simply means something you want to have happen in your life, big or small, but that requires you to focus your attention and energy in some way to bring it about.
Implementation intentions take the form of a statement like "when I encounter situation X, I will do Y". It's a personal commitment to take the intended action when the specified context arises.
In their research, professors Gollwitzer and Brandstätter conducted a couple different variations to test different hypotheses (each variation is referred to as a study). In one study, the participants who used implementation intentions accomplished 62% of their goals vs. 22% for a control group. In another study, the implementation intentions group had a goal-achievement rate of 71%, compared to 32% for the control group.
The benefits of implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are effective because they do two things. First, they prime your subconscious mind to recognize the thoughts, situations and contexts where the goal-oriented behavior is desired. I discuss this concept of priming your subconscious mind in another video, and you can check it out here.
The second benefit of implementation intentions is that they create a neural pathway in your brain, essentially utilizing the same neurological process as habit building. I’ve discussed the process of constructing new habits in another video, and I’ve included a link to it here if you want to check it out.
When you want to construct a new habit, you identify the cue and the subsequent routine that you’ll follow when that cue manifests itself in your mind or your environment. Implementation intentions follow the same process, except that you’re not establishing a permanent habit, you simply declare what you want to do in the context of making progress toward your goal.
The combination of these two factors is what makes implementation intentions so powerful. The motivation to take action toward the goal is no longer dependent solely on your underlying goal commitment and "accessibility”. In academic literature, goal accessibility is a term for how “front of mind” your goal is in your everyday thoughts. Once you’ve established the neural connection and your brain recognizes the cue, taking the desired action does not require you to consciously decide what to do, figure out how or when you’re going to do it, and then actually do it.
When to use implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are particularly helpful for situations where you need to overcome things like distractions, difficulty or roadblocks. They should be utilized in situations where you expect to encounter challenges, even if you don't know what the specific challenges will be, or when/where/how they will appear. One interesting footnote of this research is that it doesn't even matter whether you establish the implementation intentions or you're directed to do so by someone else.
There is one important point to make regarding the effectiveness of implementation intentions. They only seem to work when you already have the knowledge and skill needed to achieve the goal. Otherwise, you create a situation where you have declared that you will do something you aren't capable of doing (at least not effectively).
To be clear, implementation intentions have two components: visualizing the thought or context that will cue the behavior, and the declaring your commitment to take a specific behavior when that situation presents itself. For this strategy to work, you need to use both parts. The strength, and corresponding effectiveness, of your implementation intention depends on how clearly you define the situation, thought, feeling, or context that should cue the goal-directed behavior and, just as important, on how firm your commitment is to taking the planned action. This research showed that if you only identify the situations where you want to take action, you will not achieve the same results.
So, the next time you say to yourself “I really wish I could remember to…” or “the next time that happens, I want to…”, you can do something about it. Spend a few minutes identifying the thoughts or situations where you want to do something different, and then decide what, specifically, you’re going to do or say when that thought or situation comes up. If you do, you’ll greatly increase the odds that you’ll make the desired change.
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