The scientifically-validated way to align urges and goals: Implementation Intentions

“Implementation Intentions” is a tool from psychology literature that has been conclusively shown to increase the tendency of people to actually carry out actions towards their goals. Feel free to read the paper if you want justification. Since there’s plenty of that and I’d be just copy-pasting the article, I’m going to focus on the application side.

How to Intentionally Implement

Step 1: Have a Goal

You can use this for huge goals or things you’re trying to accomplish, or it could just be a simple habit you want to create/change/eliminate. One example that’s worked well for me is staying up when I get up. I don’t have a big issue with getting up when my alarm goes off, but if I’m at all tired or even just cold, I feel a strong inclination to just crawl back into my nice warm bed… but when I do that, I fall asleep, and it usually isn’t even particularly restful sleep. So my goal here is to stay out of bed once I’ve gotten up.

Step 2: Mental Contrasting

This technically isn’t part of implementation intentions either—but it’s another well-documented tool that helps with goal success and that works well with implementation intentions. Warning: there are two key parts here that must be combined. Doing both will increase your chance of success; doing only one will decrease it.

The first part is to spend some time thinking about the benefits of achieving your goal: the short-term peace of having a relaxed morning instead of a rushed one… the long-term time gained by not oversleeping, and the value of whatever I spend that time doing instead. The second part is to bring to mind all of the obstacles you can think of, ranging from the regular and simple (“I get cold” or “I get tired”) to the less frequent and complex (“someone else is in the bathroom”).

Here’s what mine looks like for up-getting:`

  • more time in the morning
  • better quality sleep
  • completer Zeo data
  • feeling more motivated


  • desire/urge for comfort
  • habits learned this summer while mis-doing everyman
  • sleep inertia in general
  • staying up too late

What’s key, the research reveals, is to then contrast those obstacles with the ultimate benefits, so that you get a clear association in your mind that those things are what’s standing in the way of you having all of that awesome success. Once you’ve done that…

Step 3: Think of Opportunities

In the case of getting up, there’s really only one main opportunity: when I hear my alarm clock. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar actually likes to refer to this device as an “opportunity clock” because he thinks it’s a helpful positive reframe. “If you can hear it, you’ve got an opportunity.”

For a goal like “exercise more”, there are many opportunities. One in each context where you’re choosing what to do with your body. Perhaps when you decide whether to drive or bike to work, or to take the elevator or the stairs. Is there a bar somewhere in your daily routine that would be great for pull-ups? What would be a convenient time and place to do some crunches?

Step 4: Create If-Then Statements

If you’re a programmer, then this will be really familiar. If not, then this sentence and the previous one are sort of examples. If-then statements are the core of implementation intentions. The name itself is to contrast with what researchers call “goal intentions”. Goal intentions are things like “I intend to be 10lbs lighter in 3 months” or “I intend to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of November.”

Implementation intentions look more like “if I have the chance to eat a cookie, then I’ll just take a deep breathe and refuse the cookie” or “if I sit down at my computer, I’ll open up the draft of my novel and write at least 1000 words before I go on Facebook”.

Goal intentions, despite having little directly to do with behaviour, have been shown to be effective for producing behaviour change. With implementation intentions and mental contrasting, they become even more effective. To create your if-then statements, start with the opportunities you identified in step 3. This is the initial “if” part. Then, add the intended action in those circumstances.

This is what I started with:
• When I hear the zeo opportunity clock, then I’ll get up and turn it off

It helps to be specific so that your brain is really certain when the “if” is triggered. I actually started with something I almost always do anyway. I then added:
• If I’ve just turned off the zeo, then I’ll go to the bathroom and weigh myself [I’m tracking my weight on beeminder]

This helps to create a new habit at that decision point where I’m deciding whether or not to go back to bed. While these two lines would be better than nothing on their own, they actually still have substantial room for improvement. Brains are incredibly skilled at generating excuses for things that are unpleasant or inconvenient or even just unfamiliar. You need to catch those cases. This was the ultimate chain of If-Thens that I created:

• When I hear the zeo opportunity clock, then I’ll get up and turn it off
• • If I’ve just turned off the zeo, then I’ll go to the bathroom and weigh myself
• • • If I feel like going back to bed instead, then I’ll ignore that feeling and still go weigh myself
• • • If someone is in the bathroom, then I’ll stay standing and start my morning intentions
• • • If I still feel tired, then I’ll go to the kitchen, get water, and splash it on my face
• • • • If I’m not dressed, then I’ll put on sweatpants then go
• • • If I realize that somehow I’ve sat or laid down on my bed, then I’ll count from 5 down to 0 then stand up on zero [this helps in tired situations because it doesn’t feel effortful to start counting]

• After weighing myself, then I’ll start my morning intentions
• • If I feel like doing them in bed, then I’ll do them sitting at my desk instead

Note that in several cases the “if” is basically “if I don’t feel like it”. While this might be surprising, or seem silly, it’s actually really key. If you say, “I’m going to go to the gym on Monday” then you’re implicitly assuming that on Monday you will still want to go to the gym. If you don’t, your brain might assume that you therefore don’t need to go. If, however, you decide that even if you don’t feel like it, you’re going to go anyway, then that excuse doesn’t work anymore.

Tips for successful Implementation Intentions

Use positive language

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever heard someone say “I’m never gonna drink again” …more than once. Turns out that not only does that not work, but it backfirefs, in the same way that trying not to think of a white bear usually results in frosty ursine thoughts. So rather than focus on the behaviour you want to avoid, think about what you want to do instead. I know if I heard someone say “from now on, I’m only drinking soda at parties!” I might actually expect them to succeed.

Create a success spiral

Start with implementation intentions for something that feels challenging but not overwhelming. Then you’re likely to succeed, after when when you add a new layer to this (either in the original goal or for a new one) you’ll already think of it as an effective system, and one that you obey.

This post explains success spirals really well.

If you need caveats, build them in

If you set up your Implementation Intentions so that you’ve eliminated all snacking from your life with this, but you still want to snack sometimes, then you’re going to be forced to break your intentions to do so, which sets a precedent you don’t want. Instead, you might try something like what I did:
– If I really want a snack and I haven’t had one that day, then I can trade a coupon for a snack, provided that coupon was created at least a day ago.

I would just write eg “Friday Snack Coupon” on a sticky note on Thursday, and then on Friday I could buy a snack with this. This way I could still snack in a very limited way without breaking the official contract I’d set with myself.

Start small and memorable

One last tip—I know this is a lot! This whole thing doesn’t work if you find yourself in this situation and you don’t remember what your if-then actually was. There are two things that can help with this: first, start with simple If-Thens that are fairly easy to remember. Secondly, just create a global catchall If-Then:
• If I find myself in a situation where I’m pretty sure that I have an implementation intention but can’t quite seem to recall what it was, then I’ll behave in a way that seems like the kind of thing I’d put for the Then section in this context.

I just came up with that right now, so I’ll have to give it a field-test and see if it works.

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