How To Use Mental Contrasting & Implementation Intentions To Achieve Your Goals
A Complete Guide To Goal-Setting
Last month, I set a goal of meditating daily. While the benefits of doing so are well-known and obvious, I often found myself breaking my daily streak because of numerous reasons, like falling asleep too early at night without meditating because I was too tired.
I have now been meditating daily for three weeks straight and I am confident that it wouldn’t be so but for the technique of goal pursuit I’m going to share with you today. It’s a model called MCII, Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions.
By approaching goal pursuit using this technique, not only do you boost your chances of goal attainment, but you will also be more likely to:
- Get over the initial reluctance when getting started with goal-striving.
- Stay on track, avoid distractions, and seize good opportunities.
- Cut your losses and do away with goals you don’t really want to achieve.
Here’s how I did it:
Ingredient 1: Mental Contrasting (MC)
What it is
Mental contrasting is a process of goal-setting by first imagining a desired future (e.g. going for a jog every day) and then reflecting on the present reality and how it is stopping us from realizing that future (e.g. laziness, not getting up early enough for an early morning jog, lack of energy etc.)
Why it works
By elaborating on both the desired future and the impeding current circumstances, we are able to see how the present circumstances (e.g. our current behaviors, environment, habits etc.) stand in the way of the attainment of the desirable future. By knowing with preciseness about most of the possible obstacles in our journey towards success, we are able to prepare ourselves for facing or avoiding them, thus increasing our odds of attaining our goals.
A major advantage of mental contrasting is that it helps people become clear on whether they really want to achieve goals or not. I’ve enthusiastically added too many irrelevant goals to my “Goals” list, only to work on them too long before realizing that I don’t really want them, thus having wasted precious personal resources. While one may believe in their rationale for continuing with goals that aren’t really desirable or feasible, humans are prone to sticking with their past decisions later proved wrong because they don’t want to admit that they’re wrong. This is the kind of situation that can be avoided using mental contrasting.
Alternative goal-setting strategies are indulgence (focusing only on the desired future, and not on the impeding present) and dwelling (focusing only on the impeding present, and not on the desired future). Both of these strategies fail to identify which goals the individual actually wants to achieve, thus increasing the risk of the individual choosing to work on an undesirable goal and, thus, wasting their personal resources.
Ingredient 2: Implementation Intentions (II)
What it means
Creating implementation intentions is nothing but forming if-then links in your head, leading to goal-directed behavior. The “if” part is simply a cue which incites the “from” part, which is set as the desired reaction to the cue.
For example, “if I feel the urge to check my Twitter, then I shall place my phone further away from me and do a quick body stretch to feel fresh and focused.”
Why it works
Implementation intentions automatically pass the control on to the “if-then” links whenever the relevant cues are triggered — which eliminates the need to deliberate over the reaction to those cues. In the above mentioned example, when I feel the urge to check my Twitter account, I already know that I have to place my phone further away. I don’t have to ponder over what I should do about my urge. This removal of deliberation increases the odds of exhibiting desirable behavior, and also save precious mental resources such as thinking energy and will power.
Forming implementation intentions is a pleasingly effective technique to solve the basic problems of goal-striving i.e. getting over initial reluctance, staying on track, and doing away with goals that are no longer desirable.
Moreover, implementation intentions are found to be effective for a variety of purposes, such as getting over bad habits, forming new habits, and successfully striving towards one’s goals. This technique alone is enough to guide you through the process of goal-striving.
The Combination: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII)
Here’s why combining these two techniques is more powerful than each one on its own:
- Since implementation intentions are formed as “if-then” plans which can describe how one can deal with a particular obstacle, having an accurate list of potential obstacles would be very helpful when forming implementation intentions. And, as discussed before, mental contrasting helps an individual clearly identify these obstacle beforehand by elaborating on the impeding current circumstances.
- Mental contrasting is found to create a strong commitment in individuals towards desirable goals, and strong goal commitment boosts the effectiveness of implementation intentions.
- Goal pursuit consists of two processes: goal-setting and goal-striving. Mental contrasting is found to be the “one best strategy” for goal-setting, and implementation intentions are found to be the “one best guide” for goal-striving. Together, mental contrasting with implementation intentions form a complete and effective strategy to approach the entire process of goal pursuit systematically and have a higher probability of succeeding.
How to use MCII for regular meditation
Let’s come back to my story on how, a month ago, I set a goal of meditating daily and succeeded in doing so. I had vaguely framed my goal as “regular meditation” and haphazardly executed on it without observing the reasons behind my failure to achieve my goal. Only a few days after dealing with the inefficiency and vagueness of approaching this goal with no clear strategy in mind, I realized that I needed to understand the process of goal pursuit in a better way. After some learning, I turned to the MCII technique.
The basic set of steps that I framed from my experience were:
1. Imagine and elaborate on the desired future
I imagined a future version of me enjoying the benefits of meditating daily. I would be able to get rid of most negative feelings in a matter of a few minutes. I would be able to proactively improve my thought processes. I would be able to modify my subconscious beliefs to my advantage.
This is where you imagine where you want to be in future, in vivid detail. Picture all the intricacies involved with you, say, losing weight or giving up alcohol. Ponder over this desirable future for a while, take your time.
2. Reflect on the impeding present circumstances
This is when you have to stop dreaming and come back to the current reality. I found it helpful to picture this process as sleeping and dreaming of a better future, and then being abruptly woken up to an unpleasant reality. I reflected on how I often let laziness get the better of me and prevent me from meditating daily, and how being too tired and sleepy at night made me want to skip the meditation and just fall asleep. (I intended to meditate at night, before retiring to bed)
You have to see your present circumstances in the form of obstacles lying in your way. Maybe you hang out with your friends at the bar too often, which keeps you from attaining your goal: resisting a drink and giving up alcohol. Maybe you don’t wake up early enough, which keeps you from achieving your goal of going for a run every morning.
Notice how easy it is to identify these obstacles using mental contrasting, as opposed to only thinking about the desired future and not about the current obstacles.
3. Form an “if-then” link to deal with the discovered obstacles
By premeditation of the potential obstacles and preparing for them, you will be able to boost your chances of successful goal-striving.
As mentioned before, I had two obstacles lying in my way: sleepiness at the end of the day and laziness. I created “if-then” plans to deal with both of these obstacles.
I decided that if I anticipated that the day was going to be a long one and I’d be tired at the end of it, then I would meditate in the morning itself when I wouldn’t be fatigued and sleepy.
I also decided that if I felt too lazy to meditate, then I would first get some fresh air in my balcony and then write down some lines in my journal about the person I would become by meditating daily — listing the same benefits as I did when setting the goal using mental contrasting.
Whatever obstacles you’ve discovered after the second step are now to be dealt with my forming plans for each and every one of them in an “if-then” format. Using the same hypothetical example as above, if your friends offer you a drink at the bar, then you will politely ask for water instead. If you feel lazy after getting up in the morning before going out for your morning run, then you will quickly get out of bed and wait for at least five minutes before deciding whether to get back into bed or not. (this is an implementation intention that I personally use)
The first two steps pertain to mental contrasting, while you are forming implementation intentions in the third step. Notice how connected these three steps were with each other, and how complete they were, in that they covered both goal setting and striving. You may expect to see your behavior changing in desired manner within a week.
As for the frequency of repetition of these steps, I personally went through the mental contrasting exercise every single day while meditating, and also deliberately recalled all of my implementation intentions to carve them deeper into my memory.
Apart from the advantages of MCII I’ve already mentioned, here are other ways in which this technique will help you:
- It increases self-esteem by the attainment of goals and aspirations.
- It creates self-discipline because of implementation intentions making the goal behavior more desirable.
- The MCII technique has been found effective when facing a wide variety of challenges, like behavior change, personality development, therapy for diseases like arthritis, and general goals.
Here are some things which need to be taken care of while using the MCII technique:
- It is necessary to perceive the current circumstances as an impediment, an obstacle standing in the way of becoming the desired version of ourselves
- Reverse contrasting (first elaborating on the current impediments and then elaborating on the desired future, basically the reverse process of mental contrasting) is not an effective strategy of goal-setting, as it doesn’t let you see the present reality as an obstacle
- Low self-efficacy (confidence that you will achieve your goals) is found to dampen the effects of implementation intentions, and consequently that of the MCII technique
- Mental contrasting only creates strong goal commitments for goals which are actually desirable and feasible. From my personal experience I believe that if, even after four times of mental contrasting the goal commitment is invariably low, it is time to really rethink if you really want to achieve that goal. Goals with weak commitments have a very low probability of being attained using MCII. (Which, as mentioned earlier in the article, is actually a good thing as it helps us weed out the goals we don’t really want to achieve. Such pursuits will lead to wastage of resources)
Mental contrasting with implementation intentions is a technique which acts as a complete guide for the entire process of goal pursuit. Mental contrasting is the process of visualizing the desired future and the contrasting it with the current impeding reality, thus giving a list of potential obstacles, after which implementation intentions help in dealing with those obstacles by creating “if-then” plans.
Together, these two techniques form the MCII technqiue — which has been known to not only help in goal pursuit but also as a great meta-cognitive skill to use in our daily lives.
I have found the MCII technique to be very effective, as it helped me develop the habit of meditating daily for fifteen minutes without fail. It is a very simple and easy-to-implement technique which will literally hold your hand and guide you through the entire process of goal pursuit in an orderly, systematic, and effective manner — and help you turn the future vision of yourself into reality while avoiding undesirable goals which seem desirable, thus saving precious time, energy, and money.