How to achieve your goals by using implementation intentions.

goalImplementation intentions and behavioural follow-through

Like many people (I suspect!) I am sometimes not so good at following though on my goals. Here are a bunch of things which this week I fully intended to do, but failed epically to achieve. Note this is the abridged version – the full list runs to 3 volumes.

  1. Buy light bulbs for the kitchen
  2. Call an old friend I ran into on the train last week (Hello J!)
  3. Lose weight
  4. Write down when my annual leave is on our kitchen calendar
  5. Call a work colleague to discuss a new project
  6. Write up some work related expense forms

For many of these things I actively thought about doing them several times a day (as well as whilst cooking crazily calorie laden food in a near pitch-black kitchen).I’m not alone here – these sort of goals only seem to account for around 30% of the variance in our behaviour. Now, I am a reasonably well motivated guy, so why the apparent multiple lack of follow through? Part of the is probably due to the way I formulate my intentions.

Today, when I have finished my lunch, I will form an implementation intention. Share on X

General and Specific Goals

Some of the intentions listed above (i.e. ‘lose weight’) are pretty broad. They are really more ‘goals’ than actual ’intentions’. Psychology research suggests that broad goals are less likely to be attained than specific ones. So, if I tell myself I want to lose 2lbs, I may well do better. Likewise, if I have a strong intention of achieving a goal, it’s also more likely to happen. Some of those intentions I listed are pretty specific however – buying lightbulbs for example. They are also things I strongly intended to do! How can I improve here? One proven method I could employ is to these goals into implementation intentions[1].

The magic of implementation intentions

This is neat and, if you use it consistently, effective trick. Instead of just the goal, you form an implementation intention which explicitly consists of when, where and how the goal will be achieved. The structure is simple – when some situation arises, I will do some behaviour:

  • IF {situation} THEN I will {behaviour}

So, for instance:

  • IF {I want to eat a cake} THEN {I will have an apple instead}


  • WHEN {I get to my office and have made a coffee} THEN {I will do my expenses}

These sort of implementation intentions have been shown to increase actual goal attainment significantly. For instance, asking people to form weight loss relevant implementation intentions raised increased weight loss to 4.2kg over 2 months (from 2.1kg in a control condition)[2]. They can also help emotional self-regulation of emotions such as fear and disgust[3]. They are also great for making sure you have a well lit kitchen (no citation here, just my own experience).

How do they work? Basically, they function on the assumption much of our behaviour is driven by cues in our environment with little conscious input (more on this automaticity in behaviour another day). By linking the cues to the behaviour, you increase the chance that the behaviour is ‘activated’ at the appropriate time. Essentially, you let the context help trigger the behaviour. You still need to want to do the action (or be committed to doing it at least). As they require less conscious intervention than more vague goals, they are particularly useful when we are tired or stressed.

So, this week IF I need to get a task done THEN I will make an effort to form an implementation intention. Why don’t you try the same? 🙂


[1] Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologists, 54, 493–503

[2] Luszczynska, A., Sobczyk, A., Abrabham, C. (2007). Health Psychology, 26, 507–512

[3] Schweiger Gallo, I., Keil, A., McCulloch, K.C., Rockstroh, B., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2009). Strategic automation of emotion regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 11–31

Tell me

Did you try and use implementation intentions this week? Let me know below!

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