Implementation intentions are a deceptively simple tool. Simple and proven to have an impact, a perfect combination! They will help you turn goals into actions and results.

Why is focusing on our goals so challenging? Well, we are often time-stressed, under pressure to deliver and driven to perform against short-term deadlines. And as we’re rushing through the day, we get distracted, we succumb to temptations, we fall off track.

The result: we spend a lot of time working on ‘stuff’ that isn’t closely aligned to our goals.

This happens because we’re making decisions in-the-moment, often when we’re stressed and under pressure. Our ‘executive brain’ isn’t working effectively because it has been hijacked by stress.

Look at ‘Desperate Dan’:

“I know that I have to review and propose improvements to one of our key business processes, due this quarter. It’s a goal that I’ve agreed with my manager and I’m interested to do the work, it’s a great way for me to contribute to the business and develop my expertise. But every day I come into work and get caught up by the onslaught of emails, “quick requests” for help, urgent deadlines and short-term priorities.

At the end of each week I look back and feel guilty that I haven’t made progress with this important goal, but when I get to work the following Monday, it’s the same routine all over again!”

He needs to replace ‘good intentions’ with ‘implementation intentions’ to convert his goal into actions and results.

What is an implementation intention?

An implementation intention is a deceptively simple tool. It takes the form of an “If / then” statement.

An implementation intention (II) is a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an “if-then plan” that can lead to better goal attainment, as well as help in habit and behavior modification.

For example, I have a goal of losing weight. One of my implementation intentions is: “if I’m feeling hungry mid-afternoon, I will have a banana not a cookie”.

It works because it’s a pre-decision, a decision made in advance, rather than in the moment (decisions made in the moment don’t always support our goals). And because I have made the decision in advance, I can make sure that my environment supports my goal, by having a banana on my desk. Simple but effective.

Of course, it’s not always as easy as having a banana to-hand!

Let’s take another look at Desperate Dan and how he helped himself with implementation intentions.

I realized that I needed an ‘implementation intention’ as well as a goal. To make sure I worked on my goal I wrote down these 3 simple statements.

  1. If I have a goal I’m struggling to focus on, I will sit down and work out a detailed plan of action with clear timelines and milestones.
  2. If I’m struggling to hit the milestones, I’ll schedule specific time at the start of each day to work on the project.
  3. If I’m getting distracted during this scheduled time, I’ll find a quite meeting room and turn off my email alerts. (I’ll also let me colleagues know that they can interrupt me, but only if they really can’t wait until later).

Desperate Dan is now ‘Dan the Deliverer!’. He thought about what was getting in the way of his progress and used implementation intentions to turn goals into actions and results.

The impact of implementation intentions

Because we’re making decisions in advance, implementation intentions help with:

  1. Getting started
  2. Staying on track
  3. Disengaging from ineffective activities
  4. Preventing willpower burn out

They help ensure that our time and energy is focused on delivering our goals.

The research is compelling. For more, take a look at how implementation intentions help us keep control and on-track to achieve our goals.

Turning goals into actions and results

Next time you’re working with your team on their goals (or you’re working on your own goals) take some time to clarify the implementation intentions too.

Start by exploring these 3 simple questions:

  1. Are you clear about your goals?
  2. Do you have a plan to implement your goals?
  3. And, most importantly, what’s likely to get in the way of the plan?

From the last question, identify all the likely barriers to progress. And write “If / then…” implementation intentions for each potential barrier. Stay mindful of these implementation intentions and if… then take the appropriate action to stay on track!

Think of it this way: our goals are our intended ‘destination’. And then ‘work’ gets in the way and we fail to start our journey towards that destination or fail to sustain the journey.

Implementation intentions help make sure that we travel smoothly towards our destination and achieve our goals.

(If you’d like to explore setting goals, look at FAST goal setting.)

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