A Formula for Success: The Power of Implementation Intentions

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If you’re like many men across the world, you probably set some new goals for yourself on January 1. Maybe it was to work out regularly or get into the reading habit. Or maybe you wanted to pay off your debt or increase your productivity.

Perhaps you did okay for the first week or two, but have already fallen off the goal-achieving wagon. Oh well. There’s always next year, right?

Hold on there, chief. No need to wallow in regret for the awesome life that could have been. There’s still hope for you yet.

To end this month-o-motivation, I set out to do a comprehensive post about all the ways to increase your chances of reaching a goal.

But as I waded into the research, what I found was that 1) summarizing all of the information required more of a book than a blog post, and 2) a lot of the methods didn’t personally strike me as all that helpful.

So instead I decided to cover the one tactic that was new to me, grabbed me the most, and most importantly, has been tested and shown to significantly improve your chances of successfully forming a new habit or reaching a goal.

This method is called “implementation intention,” and it’s a simple and effective way you can prime your brain for goal-achieving success.

What Stops Us from Starting and Achieving Our Goals?

Research has shown that the road to unfulfilled goals is paved with good intentions. By April, 50% of the people who made New Year’s resolutions have failed to keep them. And only half of people (and this number is likely inflated) translate their good intentions — whether made in January or any time — into real action. Interestingly, this is the same percentage of times that the average person is able to resist the four hours of unwanted desires they experience each day. Not too motivating, huh? In school, 50% is an “F.”

So what causes us to stumble on the path to our goals? Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer breaks the common obstacles down into the following categories:

Failing to Get Started with Goal Striving

Sometimes people fail before they even begin, because they have trouble:

Remembering to act. It sounds a little silly to say that people “forget” about their goals, but how often does this happen in our lives? We make it a goal to start reading 30 minutes before going to bed, but that night we start surfing the net, lose track of time, and not only don’t stop 30 minutes before bed, but end up hitting the sack an hour after we had intended to turn out the light.

Seizing the opportune moment to act. An opportunity arises to make good on our intentions and either we fail to recognize the opportunity in front of us, or we see it and don’t know how to grab it. The wife takes the kiddos to see her sister on a Saturday afternoon and you’re left home alone. It’s the perfect time to finish the dining room table you’ve been working on, but you turn on the game instead.

Second thoughts at the critical moment. Gollwitzer calls this “the problem of overcoming initial reluctance.” Here you do realize the opportune moment to fulfill your goal is at hand, you do know what you should do, but at the critical moment you have a difficult time choosing long-term benefits over short-term gratification. For example, let’s say you’ve made it a goal to take the physical side of the relationship slower with the women you date, but you’re kissing your new lady friend on the couch, and she smells so dang good…

Getting Derailed During Goal Striving

Even if you succeed in getting going with your goals, it’s rare that a one-time choice is all it takes to achieve them. Instead, you have to persevere in the goal, without letting these obstacles derail your efforts:

Enticing stimuli. It was easy to make reading a goal in the 19th century — what else were you going to do for fun? Now we’ve got choices coming out the wazoo. Studying every night seems like a good idea…but there are so many cat videos to watch!

Suppressing behavioral responses. This is a fancy of way of saying: “Old habits die hard.”

Negative states. Things like depression, stress, nervousness, and ego depletion sap your motivation to follow through on your good intentions. Simply anticipating a negative state has the same effect — hence, why you’ve thought about going to the doctor for a physical for the last five years and still haven’t made the call.

The Solution: Implementation Intentions

So those obstacles certainly stack the odds against you. But there is a way to fight back: priming your brain for success by formulating an implementation intention (“II”).

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