Implementation Intentions

Reading time: about 5 minutes.

Hillman Imp - a blast from the past!

What are IMPS?

Implementation intentions were introduced by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. We’ll call them “IMPS.”

An IMP is simply an “if – then” plan.

If “X” happens, then I will do “Y.”

IMPS are more effective than willpower alone, because when faced with temptation, willpower eventually runs out.

A goal identifies what you want to achieve, for example, to take more exercise. IMPS also specify exactly what you’ll do to achieve that goal, for example:

“When my alarm goes off at 6 o’clock each morning, I will have a shower, then I’ll run up and down stairs 10 times.”

Set your own IMPS.

There are two things to think about when setting IMPS:

  1. Identify what you’ll do to achieve your goal, and when you’ll do it
  2. Identify any obstacles, and how you’ll deal with them

IMPS are written as an “if – then” statement:

If it’s 6 o’clock, Monday through Friday, then I will get up, go to the bathroom, use the toilet and shower, then run up and down stairs ten times before I do anything else.”

Goal shielding.

It’s a good idea to identify any problems that could push you off course.

Once you’ve identified these problems, you can create an “if – then” statement to deal with each one.

For example, suppose you’re trying to lose weight, but you’ve struggled with these three situations:

  1. By mid-afternoon you feel tired, so you pop out to buy crisps.
  2. When you feel stressed, you overeat.
  3. They only sell unhealthy snacks in your local shops.

In order to shield your goals, you can create “if – then” statements, for example:

  • If I’m at the office, then I’ll take fruit to eat in the middle of the afternoon.
  • If I’m feeling stressed, then I’ll go for a walk, or talk to a friend.
  • If I think I might have to buy food at lunchtime, then I’ll take sandwiches to work.

When to use IMPS.

  1. You set a goal, but don’t start it. You may need help with action initiation.
  2. You set a goal, start it, but get distracted. You may need help with keeping focused.

Can’t get started?

This happens for three main reasons: forgetting stuff, missing opportunities, and having second thoughts.

  1. Forgetting – you want to get your money under control, decide to keep hold of all your receipts, but you forget to keep them.
  2. Missed opportunities – you want to read a novel every month, so carry a book around with you. While waiting for an appointment, you miss the opportunity to read, and pick up an old waiting room magazines instead.
  3. Second thoughts – you decide to walk a mile each day. You plan to walk, but it looks like rain, so put your feet up instead.

Getting distracted?

This happens for three main reasons: temptations, old habits, and bad moods.

  1. Temptations – you set the goal of losing weight, you see a cake shop, you’re tempted, you go in, you buy a cake.
  2. Old habits – you want to stop smoking, and you tend to smoke after drinking with friends. While at a friend’s house, they offer you a cigarette. You smoke it almost without noticing.
  3. Bad moods – we tend to prioritise “mood repair” above our other goals. You’re saving for a holiday, you have an argument with your partner, you blow the money on a treat for yourself.

 Have you done any of these things? You can use “if – then” statements to help shield your goals.

Good and bad IMPS.

Make sure your IMPS are specific. Avoid vague IMPS like these:

  • If I want to smoke, then I’ll distract myself by doing something else. It’s better to be to be specific about how you’ll distract yourself.
  • If it’s morning, then I’ll exercise. It’s better to be specific about what you’ll do, the time and the day.

Here are some examples of good IMPS:

Goal – Keep track of my spending.

IMP – If I take out my wallet to pay for something, then I’ll keep the receipt in my wallet, then I’ll take out a notebook and jot down how much I’ve spent.

Goal – Lose weight.

IMP – If I’m walking down the street and I see a cake shop, then I’ll cross the road and keep walking.

Goal – Save money.

IMP – If I’m at the bank, then I will make a deposit in my savings account, however small.

Goal – Relax.

IMP – If I feel myself getting angry or upset, then I will take a deep breath, count to twenty, and distract myself.

Goal – Read a good book.

IMP – If I have some waiting time, whether it’s waiting for the dentist, or waiting to pick up my kids, then I will take out my book and start reading.

Conclusion.

With implementation intentions, you’re planning the actual things you’ll do to achieve your goals, as well as when and where you’ll do these things. You’re also creating a plan about how you’ll maintain progress, even when faced with obstacles.

Research shows IMPS are much more effective than willpower alone.

Before you go, why not write down some IMPS, maybe an “If – then” statement about how you can keep your progress going with this Programme, when faced with obstacles or distractions.

For more information, read: Gollwitzer, P. M., Wieber, F., Meyers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2010). How to maximize implementation intention effects. In C. R. Agnew, D. E. Carlston, W. G. Graziano, J. R. Kelly (Eds.). Then a miracle occurs: Focusing on behavior in social psychological theory and research (pp.137-161). New York: Oxford Press.

Next – Setting Useful Goals.


Written by: SC.
Written on: 20 May 2019.
Last updated on: 06 June 2019.
Checked by: JL.
Checked on: 06 June 2019.
Date for review: May 2021.
Flesch Reading Ease: 81.