Thinking Toys #14 — Implementation Intentions

Coming up with goals that feel worth achieving can be a struggle in an of itself. Unfortunately, merely formulating a desirable goal is rarely enough to succeed. The next critical step is planning the implementation. Forming implementation intentions helps with this. In my experience, it is one of the most powerful mental moves. They start where goals leave off: some outcome that you want to achieve. From there, you choose an action that will move you towards that outcome. Given that action, you form an implementation intention by choosing a specific when, where, and how. You envision and commit to the details of what your action will be in response to which precise cues. This planning process helps form a new stimulus-response pattern. With practice, it will automatically — subconsciously — occur under the envisioned conditions.

I use a simple implementation intention to help with my goal of learning more from other people. The cue is whenever someone excitedly mentions going to an event. The action I take in response is to ask them “What was your biggest takeaway?”. To install this pattern, I mentally practiced different variations of people presenting the cue — specific, recent examples — and then taking my response action. After a few weeks of practicing a few minutes a day in my head, and a few real-world triggers, the pattern of response became automatic.

A few conditions can increase the odds of success for an implementation intention. First, the triggering cue should be clear and precise. Something concrete that you can visualize. Rather than “When I wake up” try “When I press the off button on my alarm”. Second, the intended action needs to happen with consistency. You want to desire to, and be able to, always take the action when you encounter the cue. If there are situations where you don’t think that will happen, try to carve them out of your cue. For example, “When I press the off button on my alarm, except on weekends or when it’s raining out or when someone is sleeping over”. Finally, ensure that the action you want to take is one that furthers a goal you care about. If you don’t see the connection between your action and your goal, you won’t care enough to execute on it. Be able to answer why you want to take the particular action. If (cue), then (action), because (reason).

It’s hard to overstate the power of implementation intentions. I want to keep this introductory post short to communicate the basic idea. I intend to write a follow-up post to highlight the wide variety of possibilities made available with this tool. To hint at the potential, here are a few ideas for implementation intentions:

  • Every day after brushing your teeth in the bathroom, do 20 push-ups
  • Whenever someone is presenting a contorted facial expression, ask them what they are feeling
  • When someone tells you their name, repeat it back to them and do it again at the end of the conversation
  • When you finish a block of work and want to take a break, make a short note on what you think the next steps are
  • Every morning right after turning your alarm off, sit up and smile
  • While taking out your phone and unlocking it, close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths while paying attention to how your body feels