Implementation Intentions


By telling your brain when, where, and how you’re going to do something, it’s more likely it will actually happen.

LeAnn Hunt explains Implementation Intentions

My current self is always making plans for my future self. Problem is, my future self doesn’t always want to do what my current self says. How do we get ourselves to do things that are important to us, but difficult, unpleasant, or boring? An implementation intention is a clever, research-backed hack to make it more likely you’ll do that thing in the future.

 For example, I was taking a Harvard class in motivation and the professor wanted to remember to put up a particular slide during the upcoming break. He had an intention, but he wanted to make it more likely he’d remember his intention. So, right there in the middle of class he stated an implementation out loud. “If class break is starting, then I will put up the slide.” Sure enough, ten minutes later after ongoing lecture and discussion, it was break time and he remembered to put up the slide.

Here’s how it works. Our brain is really good at responding to cues. We see yummy food, our mouth salivates. Sit down for a movie and start craving popcorn. We can hack these automatic systems by setting up our own cues and the behavior we want to do. For example, if you want to snack on more veggies, the cue might be opening the fridge and the behavior might be grabbing a single carrot stick and eating it.

How do you create an implementation intention? You create an If/Then statement. If situation X occurs, then I will do action Y. Rehearse the If/ Then statement a few times to get it settled in your brain and you’re set. It sounds so easy, but the research shows that it works pretty well. Say you’re trying to get a good grade in a class and you realize scrolling on social media might become a distraction to getting your homework done. An implementation might look like, If I notice myself scrolling, then I will ask myself, “Are you doing what you want to be doing right now?” Here’s a few implementation intention examples:

If . . .

I notice myself scrolling

I open the fridge

I hear my alarm in the morning

Then . . .

I will as myself “Are you doing what you want to be doing?”

I will grab a baby carrot and eat it.

I will sit up in bed and stretch before I turn it off.

Implementation Intentions are great for kickstarting a goal or anticipating internal obstacles that can come up. You can anticipate these obstacles with another skill called Mental Contrasting, where you visualize your goal, then imagine every roadblock that may arise, and set an implementation intention for those roadblocks.

Some people like to add a reminder of the which goal this intention is in service of. It looks like this: If situation X happens, I’ll start behavior Y in order to reach goal Z.

If . . .

I find myself scrolling at my desk

Feel myself getting angry

Then . . .

I will put my phone in the bathroom

I will walk away and take 5 deep breaths

In order to . . .

Get my homework done

Build my relationships

Implementation Intentions are like a tiny super-powered bridge that gets you from setting a goal to taking action on the goal.

Coaching Questions for Implementation Intentions

  • What behavior do you want to implement? Be as tiny and specific as possible.
  • What cue do you want to tie the behavior to?

What Implementation Intentions look like in a Goal Journal Page