Implementation intentions: a powerful tool to accomplish goals

[image: word cloud describing psychological concepts, Wikimedia; this is essay #287 in the Figs in Winter series]

Psychological research is supposed to be helpful to living a better life. In that sense, it is the empirical complement to philosophy as the art of living. As the ancient Stoics taught us, it makes little sense to try to live a good life if you ignore how the world works (science), or if you do not think in a sound manner about what to do and why (philosophy).

One very nice example is the use of so-called implementation intentions for Stoic practice, as my friend and co-worker Greg Lopez and I have done throughout our Handbook for New Stoics. But the power of implementation intentions goes far beyond Stoic exercises. Indeed, there are no limits to their practical applications, so let me introduce you to the technique, if you are not familiar with it.

Essentially, an implementation intuition is a specific, goal-directed action plan that takes the form:

IF {situation} THEN I will {action plan}

Although the power of implementation intentions is particularly strong when we write them down somewhere (e.g., in a diary, or on a post-it, or on your computer screen), we all use the concept in daily life, without even thinking about it. I presume, for instance, that you brush your teeth in the morning, shortly after you get up. In my case, the by now subconscious implementation intention looks something like this:

IF {it’s morning and I’ve had my coffee} THEN I will {brush my teeth}

I’ve been doing this for so long that it is now a habit, and I certainly don’t need to write it down in order to automatically carry out the task (brushing my teeth) in response to the cue (having had my morning coffee). And that’s the point of implementation intentions: they help us automate certain behaviors that we have decided are good for us. Automating the behavior by linking it to a cue saves you cognitive resources (you don’t have to think about it every time) and make it far more likely that you will actually do it (because the cue is reliable, and we are creatures of habit).

Okay, this sounds marvelous. Indeed, a bit too marvelous. Where is the evidence? I’m glad you asked. There is by now a large empirical literature on implementation intentions, but here are some of my favorite examples:

* When a group of women was asked to write down an implementation intention to perform a breast self-examination over the following months, 100% actually did the examination, compared to 53% in the control group.

* A group that was asked to create specific implementation intentions to aid in weight loss managed to lose 4.2 kilos (9.3 pounds) over three months. The control only lost 2.1 kilos (4.6 pounds).

* Implementation intentions helped young adults to consume more fruits and vegetables: 50% more per day, compared to an increase of 31% in the control group.

* In a study on procrastination, 62% of people who used implementation intentions managed not to procrastinate, compared to 18% in the control group.

* When the goal was to go to the gym at least once a week, 91% of people who had used implementation intentions were able to do it, compared with 35% in the control group.

One key reason implementation intentions work is that they focus our attention on specific, short term goals, which in turn can, and usually are, part of more general and more long term goals. For instance, I may have the long term goal of eating in a more healthy manner. This is great, but notice that the general goal is open ended and a bit vague. I can make it more specific by writing down a number of implementation intentions, such as:

IF {I feel pesky during the day} THEN I will {eat fruits instead of other snacks}

IF {it is an odd weekday} THEN I will {go to the gym for at least one hour}

IF {ten months have passed since my last physical} THEN I will {call the doctor’s office and make an appointment}

And so forth. A second reason implementation intentions work is because breaking explicit commitments creates discomfort. And the more specific and immediate the commitment, the stronger the feeling of discomfort if we break it. Sure, I may feel a bit of discomfort if I had decided that it is good for me to exercise more and then realize that I haven’t actually increased my exercise time over the past several months. But I will feel much more discomfort if I have set the specific goal of going to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and then one of these days comes and I’m not going.

The concept of implementation intentions was introduced in 1999 by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, as a result of studies conducted in the ’80s and ’90s on goal striving. That research showed that intentions (“I want to go to the gym”) only account for 20–30% of the variance in people’s behavior, i.e., they don’t make that much of a difference.

The data also demonstrates that implementation intentions help in three distinct way: (i) they force us to explicitly consider the obstacles to a goal and devise strategies to get around such obstacles; (ii) they reduce the chances that we underestimate the time required to complete a given task; and (iii) the very fact that we create a plan helps us remember to actually act on it.

One way to grasp the connection between psychology and philosophy here is by considering what psychologists call the phase model of action. It basically says that there are two phases to our deliberate actions: the pre-decisional and the post-decisional phase. While in pre-decisional phase we adopt a deliberative mindset, which helps us figure out our goals based on our priorities. When we are in post-decisional phase we switch to an implemental mindset, which takes for granted our goals and priorities and focuses instead on how to achieve them. In a sense, the pre-decisional phase is a matter of philosophical reflection, while the post-decisional phase is a matter of psychologically following through.

Would you believe that the ancient Stoic Epictetus had anticipated the sort of modus operandi that is described by the theory of implementation intentions? Here is what he had to say about what I just called the deliberative and implemental mindsets:

The second bit of this quote, with its poetic “admit not sleep into your tender eyelids,” is often justly regarded as an invitation to engage in philosophical journaling, a standard Stoic technique. Before going to bed, set aside a few minutes and critically examine your behavior during the day, to learn from your mistakes, reinforce your good decisions, and better prepare yourself for future occasions.

But the first part encapsulates the point of the discipline of assent, one of the three fundamental disciplines of Epictetus’ philosophy (the other two are desire and aversion, on restructuring our priorities; and action, on how to act in the world). The discipline of assent is designed to automate our judgments so that we have, as the first part of the quote puts it, to have “each judgment ready at the moment when it is needed.” We could make Epictetus’ advice explicit in the form of a set of implementation intentions:

IF {I am at dinner time} THEN {I will act appropriately, e.g., waiting for my time to get food, be respectful of my dinner companions, etc.}

IF {I am at bathing time} THEN {I will act appropriately, etc.}

IF {I am at bedtime} THEN {I will act appropriately. etc.}

Interestingly, implementation intentions are also helpful in regulating one’s emotions — another thing the Stoics claimed it was possible and desirable, even though still today I hear many people saying things like “I just felt that way, I couldn’t help it.” Yes, you could have. Here is how.

One study focused on fear and disgust in response to certain stimuli, like seeing a spider. It should by now not surprise you that people who used implementation intentions (along the lines of “if I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed”) were successful in reducing their allegedly uncontrollable emotional reactions, while the control group wasn’t.

Again, implementation intentions can be used for pretty much everything you wish to accomplish, so long as you are sufficiently precise and you write them down. For example:

WHEN {I finish brushing my teeth in the evening} THEN {I will meditate for ten minutes}

WHEN {I get my paycheck} THEN {I will set aside 5% in my investment accounts}

IF {an homeless person addresses me in the streets} THEN {I will say good morning, addressing him like a human being}

IF {I feel myself getting angry} THEN {I will immediately disengage from the situation and go for a walk until I calm down}

And so forth. Happy implementing!


P.S.: although not quite the same as implementation intentions, you can use some reminders on your smart phone or watch to a similar effect. For instance, my Apple Watch reminds me to get my butt off the chair every hour. And I do it. In terms of implementation intentions, this would be like: IF {my phone signals me to get up} THEN {I will stop whatever I’m doing and stretch for a few minutes}.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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