Want to turn good intentions into actions?

Posted on July 5th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

Not long ago, a friend kept saying that she didn’t like her job and wanted to find a new one. But every time we met up, she said she was too busy (with work and also moving home) to look for a new job.  For months, she talked about how frustrated she was with work but she didn’t actually do anything about it.

Sneakily, I applied a psychological technique to help her.  I asked: if she had the time, what would her first step be?  She replied that she needed to rewrite her CV.

Then I asked her when might be the best time to do that?  The best time, she answered, would probably be on a Sunday when her partner went for an early morning run.

And that was enough.  The following week when I saw her, she said that she had not only revamped her CV but also spent an hour or so looking at job websites.

Researchers Peter Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen at New York University have called this the implementation intention technique.  In multiple studies, they have found that using this simple goal-setting trick can double or even triple people’s chances of turning good intentions into genuine action.

How does it work?  In order to boost the chances of following through with your goals, the key is to be as specific and detailed as possible:

  • Decide what you want to do.  Choose a manageable behaviour.  It could be to do with losing weight, studying or learning how to do something different at work.  Whatever your behaviour, pick a simple and fairly attainable behaviour.
  • Decide when you want to do it.  Pick a time or set of circumstances that will trigger your action.  Clearly, you could pick a time of day on a certain day of the week – or the same time of day on every day of the week.  But do consider different circumstances too.  For example, you might decide to do 10 push-ups every time you brush your teeth or make a coffee.  Or you could spend two minutes breathing deeply and clearing your mind every time you return to your desk.
  • Put the what and when together into an “If… then…” statement.  For example, my friend said “If it’s a Sunday morning and Craig is going for a run, then I will rewrite my CV.”  Or someone trying to become a better listener at work might decide: “If I find myself talking over someone, then I will say ‘sorry, please continue.'”

Literally hundreds of studies conducted all over the world have shown that people who put together “If… then…” statements are significantly more likely to succeed in their goals.  I teach this technique all the time, for instance when helping individuals become more confident or managers improve their leadership skills.

Here are further examples of implementation intentions if you would like more inspiration for forming your own:

  • If it’s 6pm on Sunday, then I will walk up and down the stairs 10 times and do 5 minutes of yoga stretches.”
  • If I’m craving chocolate, then I will reach for a piece of chewing gum instead.”
  • If John makes me feel insecure, then I will practise the 5-senses mindfulness exercise for at least a minute.”
  • If it’s the first Saturday in a month, then I will spend one hour creating further implementation intentions for the coming month that will help me towards my next promotion.”
  • “If it’s the end of a working day, then I will review my workload and decide on top priorities for the next morning.”

I have also written about it in several books including Confidence 2.0 and You Can Change Your Life (which is where the quote in the photo comes from).

So what about you?  Will you stick to just good intentions (with its high risk of failure)?  Or will you turn your intentions into implementation intentions and give yourself the very best shot at success?

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