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Thomas Webb Ph.D.

Building a Bridge Between Intention and Action

Or how you might start cycling to work

In my last blog post outlined why people might struggle to achieve their goals (e.g., to cycle to work each day). I argued that people likely set goals that they have little chance of attaining, fail to monitor their progress toward these goals, and likely have (or believe that they have) limited resources to take action when they need to.

Thomas Webb
Source: Thomas Webb

This probably all seemed rather negative and may have even put some of you off setting new goals or striving to achieve those that you already held. I’m sorry if so. In this blog, I want to redress the balance and show that understanding the problems that you and others are likely to encounter translating intentions into action (i.e., negotiating the road to hell) can help to identify strategies to overcome these problems, build a bridge between intentions and action, and ultimately achieve goals. This seems like a timely endeavor both because cycling currently accounts for just 2% of all trips made by people in the UK (I suspect that people intend to make more than 2% of their trips by bike, but struggle to do so) and because our paper on the intention-behavior gap has just been published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass. It describes in a little more detail the tasks that people face realizing their intentions but, like this blog, also points to some tools that can help people tackle these challenges.

Given that people's behavior likely contributes to a wide range of societal and global problems (e.g., climate change, the cost of healthcare, discrimination), it is not surprising that considerable effort has been devoted to identifying techniques that those interested in changing behavior (including people themselves) can deploy. Indeed, a project led by UCL has recently identified 93 different behavior change techniques (or BCTs). In this blog, however, I’m only going to describe one of these—action planning. In fact, I’m only going to describe a specific type of action planning that involves forming an if-then plan or “implementation intention.” It’s not that the other 92 techniques are not effective (indeed, we have shown that prompting people to monitor their behavior or the outcomes of their behavior can help them to achieve their goals), it’s just that if-then planning is one of the most widely researched and best-validated tools for improving the translation of intentions into action. Furthermore, the technique can be applied to a range of problems and thus could potentially help to build a bridge between intentions and action, whatever problem that bridge needs to cross.

If-then planning was first described by Peter Gollwitzer and involves identifying an opportunity in which to act (in the if-part of the plan), deciding in advance how to respond to that opportunity (in the then-part of the plan), and then linking the opportunity and response together. So someone who intends to cycle to work each day would be encouraged to reflect on the reason(s) why they struggle (e.g., do they find it difficult to wake early enough or are they put off by the thought of the exertion or being at the mercy of the elements?). Having identified the potential problem, a little thought needs to go into how the if-part of the plan might be specified so as to describe an opportunity for overcoming that problem. For example, someone who finds it difficult to wake early enough to cycle might identify the temptation to watch box sets late into the night as an opportunity to address this problem. Similarly, someone who struggles to cycle because of the negative feelings aroused by the prospect of sitting on a bike (e.g., concerns about the necessary exertions or the weather) might specify these feelings in the if-part of the plan.

The final step is to identify how to respond to the opportunity, which could involve an action (e.g., going to bed) or a way of thinking (e.g., then I will think about how good I will feel about myself if I cycle). The idea is that, by specifying in advance how to respond, the person does not need to deliberate at the critical moment. For example, someone opening the garage door to be confronted with drizzly rain would not face a moment of indecision (and potentially reach for the car keys). Instead, the person would quickly and relatively automatically think about how good they will feel about themselves if they cycle and find themselves rolling down the road looking forward to these feelings.

As I said, lots of evidence supports the idea that forming if-then plans helps people to achieve their goals (even people who are already really motivated to do so), so I would encourage any readers who want to change their—or others—behavior to work through the steps above and let me know how you get on. If you want a little more help (or just like quirky apps on your phone) then take a look at WOOP, which combines if-then planning with another technique called mental contrasting. Perhaps more on that in another blog…


About the Author

Thomas Webb, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Sheffield who studies self-regulation—how people control their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.