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Implementation Intentions Facilitate Action Control

One of the most effective anti-procrastination strategies I know.

This post is in response to
Overcoming Procrastination: Four Potential Problems During Goal Pursuit

I'm often asked what someone should do to reduce procrastination. One of my most common answers is, "It's not enough to have a goal intention, you need to have an implementation intention too." Today, I explain what an implementation intention is and how it works to overcome four common problems in goal pursuit.

As I explained in my last post, I've been reading an early copy of The thief of time: Philosophical essays on procrastination to be published by Oxford Press in April this year. I'm picking up where I left off with a focus on implementation intentions by summarizing the main ideas presented by Frank Wieber and Peter Gollwitzer in their chapter, "Overcoming Procrastination Through Planning."

They propose "implementation intentions as an easily applicable planning strategy that can help overcome procrastination by automating action control" (p. 190). I agree. Implementation intentions are not a panacea for problems with procrastination, but they are a good tool for change.

Implementation intentions support goal intentions. I might have a goal intention of "flossing my teeth regularly" (one of my most common examples, as readers and listeners of my iProcrastinate Podcasts know). An implementation intention supports this goal intention by setting out in advance when/where and how I will achieve this goal. In this case, it might be "When I put the toothpaste on my toothbrush in the evening (something which is a habit for me), I will then stop and get out the floss first." Essentially what I've done in making this implementation intention is to put the cue for behavior (putting the paste on my toothbrush) into the environment, so it serves as a stimulus for my behavior. I don't have to think about or remind myself about my goal. The moment I put the paste on my brush, my behavior is cued. In time, this should become as automatic as my teeth brushing is already. (Note: I do think there are many problems here still, and I know this from lived experience, because I can fall into a intransitive preference loop around this behavior, always putting it off one more day, but I'll save the details of this criticism for another day.)

The issue here really is one of a predecision. As Wieber and Gollwitzer write, "the control over the initiation of the ... behavior is delegated to the specified situation ... without requiring a second conscious decision." (p. 190). And, they note in a few places that the most effective form for an implementation intention is the "if ... then" format. If I have the toothpaste in my hand, I will get out the floss to floss my teeth first.

Over more than a decade of research, Gollwitzer and his colleagues have amassed a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that implementation intentions have a medium to large effect size on goal achievement (over and above having a goal intention itself—although having a strong goal intention and commitment to the goal is an essential ingredient in the success of an implementation intention). I provided an example of this research in my previous post, A strategy for change.

The key issue for my post today is how implementation intentions address each of the challenges that I summarized yesterday from the chapter authored by Wieber and Gollwitzer. As before, I'll number each of the potential problems in goal pursuit and briefly summarize how implementation intentions work to circumvent the problem.

1. Problems with initiating goal action
Implementation intentions can help you with my most often-offered strategy of "just get started." In fact, studies indicate that implementation intentions on getting started can even help when we have an initial reluctance to get started on an aversive task and would rather simply, "give in to feel good." My favorite example from the chapter was a study that involved making implementation intentions to get started on weekly math homework (for a period of a month). The math homework was tedious, but those participants who were randomly assigned to the "if -then" format of implementation intentions started their homework within one-and-a-half hours of their intended start time (as opposed to eight hours for the more vaguely stated implementation intentions). Other studies involving health goals (e.g., starting regular physical activity, breast self-exams) or environmentally-responsible behavior (e.g., purchasing organic food) also demonstrated the efficacy of implementation intentions for acting on the goal. In short, you're more likely to get started when you put the stimulus for action into the environment.

2. Staying on track
Wieber and Gollwitzer note that four studies have investigated the effects of implementation intentions on resisting tempation. Taken together, these studies demonstrated that participants who formed temptation-inhibiting implementation intentions outperformed the groups who did not. And, this effect was independent of the participants' motivation to achieve the goal and to ignore distractions. Implementation intentions have effects over and above motivation to succeed. This is important. Interestingly, the fourth example they provide is a study of 6-year-olds. Again, the results showed that implementation intentions (of the if-then format) even helped six-year-olds to not procrastinate. (You can bet I'll make this more a focus at home, as I had not read this study previously.)

3. Disengaging from ineffective strategies
Implementation intentions can be used to help us switch to a different means for our goal pursuit or even a different goal. In an example of this kind of implementation used in research, Wieber and Gollwitzer note that participants had been asked to form implementations like, "If I receive disappointing feedback, then I'll switch my strategy." This kind of implementation intention facilitated the disengagement that can be problematic in our goal pursuit. That said, I would think that an even more effective implementation intention might be to have a "Plan B" more carefully specified, as this would reduce the uncertainty of what "switching a strategy" might mean. Uncertainty is a key correlate of procrastination, so anything we can do to reduce it when planning through implementation intentions can't hurt.

4. Preventing willpower burn out (self-regulation depletion)
As you may recall from my previous posts about the metaphor used by Roy Baumeister and colleagues, willpower is like a muscle, and there are things we can do to bolster our self-regulatory resources. Implementation intentions can be added to this list of willpower boosters. A couple of studies have now demonstrated that the automatic nature of the effects of implementation intentions counters the effects of ego- or self-regulatory depletion. For example, when participants in this type of study have to control their emotions during a humorous movie (suppressing their laughter), they are usually less capable of doing a subsequent experimental task that requires self-regulatory strength such as solving a series of anagrams. However, for participants randomly assigned to an "if-then" implementation intention manipulation (who prepared by saying to themselves, "If I solve an anagram, then I will immediately start to work on the next one"), this depletion effect was eliminated (they solved as many anagrams as the group who were not depleted beforehand). This is an interesting result with clear implications for how we can strengthen our flagging willpower at the end of a long day. For example, an implementation intention may well be the thing that gets you to exercise in the evening even though you usually feel much too tired to begin.

Closing Comments
I've heard back from many of the readers of Don't Delay as well as listeners of my iProcrastinate Podcasts that they wanted to learn more about implementation intentions. Well, there you have it. And, if you want even more, I recommend that you read the chapter in the upcoming book The thief of time: Philosophical essays on procrastination .

Whether you decide to read more or not, it's time to make your own implementation intention for an important goal intention in your life. What "if-then" intention will you work with today?

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