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Closing the Intention-Action Gap

What are your intentions?

This post is in response to
Will Obama's automatic savings plans save the day?

An employee intends to get to work on time, but rarely does. A friend says he'll pick you up to take you to the airport the next morning, but fails to show up. You tell yourself that you'll begin exercising tomorrow morning, but tomorrow comes and goes without exercise. What do you think of each of these brief scenarios? What makes them similar yet different?

If you're like me, you probably think the first case is unacceptable, the second requires a good explanation (car broke down), and the third, well, that's life, right? In fact, I could have written the scenarios like this: 1) as an employee, you intend to get to work on time and you do; 2) when a friend asks for a ride and you express your intention to provide it, you show up; and 3) you express the intention to exercise, but it doesn't happen. This may actually describe many of us. Why?

We are rational and responsible in terms of our intentions and commitments made to others, but not to ourselves. The same lack of action often happens with other intentions to self, including: saving for retirement, flossing our teeth, watching less TV, eating less salt, watching our caloric intake . . . You know this list.

It's interesting to see Dan Goldstein's recent post about President Obama's announcement about an automatic savings plan. As Dan noted, this is clearly based on the findings of behavioral economics. We know we don't always act in our best interest, so a standardized default investment means our lack of action ends up with us saving. With this plan, not acting (hitting the metaphorical snooze button on saving) works in our favor. Certainly Peter Ubel made this clear in his book, Free Market Madness, and this type of savings policy is exactly what Peter advocated (based on the kind of research literature that Dan noted in his post).

In short, we need help to help ourselves.

So, what is the difference? Why are we so irresponsible towards ourselves and our own intentions? And, given that we are less responsible to ourselves, is it possible to institute a "default investment" approach to our health behaviors for example?

It's certainly not as easy, but it is possible. Habits are the key. We have to make the action we want part of our "routine," not something that requires a conscious choice each day. Two ways to do that are implementation intentions and creative commitment devices.

In the first case, implementation intentions are meant to put the stimulus for action into the environment, so that we're not relying on conscious thought so much. In the second case, the commitment device is just what President Obama has suggested with a default saving account. Because I have written on both of these topics at length previously, use the links above to learn more about these topics.

Of course, it will take a lot of creativity to find a commitment device around regular exercise or teeth flossing. Perhaps we need to draw on another difference between the intentions I set out at the beginning of this blog. The first two scenarios involve social commitments, social contracts of sorts, with others. These social contracts may be part of the answer when our own willpower to act fails us.

For example, make a commitment with a friend to meet him or her for that early-morning run. Whereas you might roll over and go back to sleep if it's just you, it's less likely you'll leave your friend stranded out in front of your house. Of course, the social aspect of the exercise project is a reward in itself too, fulfilling our basic relatedness need.

I've done something like this in my own life, combining the notion of a creative commitment device with a social contract. I love my job as a professor. I could spend way too many hours at my desk. Although this is rewarding in many ways, it's not good for balance in my life, and it simply kills my back to sit at my desk for too long. The thing is, it was always easy to put off leaving my desk for just a few more minutes, and the next thing I know, it's midnight.

The solution is my sled-dog team and horses (not to mention two children now!). I'll keep the focus on my dogs in this example, as they came first (and children are in a class of their own in terms of priority). Of course, the dogs need exercise, time, attention and "TLC." So, even when I could sit at my desk longer, I stop and think, "oops, I better get outside and run those dogs." Once I get outside, my perspective changes, and I start doing things like exercise which is good for me. My social contract to my animals becomes a creative commitment device and a winning strategy for my own physical and mental well being. (Now the trick in my life is finding time for everything!)

I guess that's part of the answer to enhancing our own self-regulatory and goal pursuit success. We each have to find and implement those creative commitment devices and social contracts in our lives to help us when we can't seem to help ourselves. Now, if only I wouldn't procrastinate on calling that friend to organize our run tomorrow . . . ah, the peril of second-order procrastination!

More from Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D.
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