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Implementation Intentions (1999) Gollwitzer


Implementation Intentions are simple plans that make it more likely you’ll follow through with a goal.


“Given its easy application and its reliably strong effects on alleviating critical problems of goal pursuit, it seems justified to advise people to furnish their good resolutions with implementation intentions.”

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493–503. 

Research Story

This researcher from Germany summarized research getting at the problem of people acting on good intentions using Implementation Intentions, which are simple plans tying our intentions to a specific situational cue.

Good intentions don’t always result in action. It’s hard to decide on an action in the middle of a situation. We won’t get much success if we wait until we wake up to decide if, when, and where we’ll do a morning run. Deciding ahead of time has advantages.

People commit to goals with “I intend to reach x!” That’s goal intention. Implementation is different. It specifies the when, where, and how of goal pursuit with “When situation x arises, I will perform response y!” Cues don’t only have to be at the same time each day (as in taking medicine). They can also be situational (as in when someone asks me to do something, I will say “Can I get back to you on that?”)

In Christmas break studies with students, setting implementation intentions for how, when, and where to start a project made it vastly more likely they would do it. Implementation intentions help people get started.

Implementation intentions work even for potentially unpleasant tasks like exercise, taking medicing, or eating healthy. They also work for compromised populations like recovering drug addicts, schizophrenic patients, frontal lobe patients, and the elderly.

Why do implementation intentions get people to act? First, they affect the situation by increasing perception, attention, and memory, and by singling out the situation over distractions. Second, they increase starting behaviors faster, more automatically, and without taxing thinking. Essentially, they create instant habits by automating specific behaviors in specific situations.

Implementation Intentions aren’t magic. They need to be paired with strong commitment to both the goal and the specific planned implementation. 

Implementation intentions work with distractions. They also work even when an old habit exists for a given cue. Zoning in on the critical stimulus and creating a new implementation intention tends to override the old habit. Implementation intentions also work with rerouting prejudice, unwanted thoughts, and feelings. They protect the current goal pursuit from being overtaken by other goals or bad habits.

So What – Application

If implementation intentions make it more likely you’ll follow through with what you set out to do, it would be advantageous to learn to create implementation intentions and get in the habit of using them.

Having the formula helps. Whenever situation x arises, I will initiate the goal-directed response. Allowing ourselves a few minutes to come up with the statement is important. When do I want to exercise, read, write, sew, or eat more vegetables? Rather than thinking of a time of day, tie it to a cue. After I drop my kids off at school, when I sit down with a TV remote in my hand, etc.  

It’s almost as though using implementation intentions have the same effect as forming habits with only mental rehearsal rather than all those pesky iterations of repeated behavior in real habit formation. 

Peter Gollwitzer