In 2005 Theodore Powers, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth published a paper on implementation intentions and New Year’s resolutions.
Implementation intentions are an incredibly useful tool for anyone who is planning on making changes.
Implementation intentions specify the exact opportunity to act on a behavior.
Let’s say someone sets a weight loss goal; based on their goal they ‘intend’ to eat more vegetables.
Sadly, we often fail to act on what we plan to do. Changing behavior is tough and implementation intentions tend to help.
A person who wants to eat more vegetables would make an implementation intention that looks like this:
“When I am making dinner tonight I will add a cup of broccoli to my meal”.
Research suggest that forming an implementation intention can help close what is called the ‘intention-behavior gap’.
While the evidence errs on the side of supporting implementation intentions, they don’t work for everyone.
Some of the individuals in Power’s study were social perfectionist. This means they felt the need to meet standards or goals set by people other than themselves.
It turns out that when social perfectionist formed implementation intentions their plans backfired. Making specific plans decreased their odds of successfully reaching their goals.
Why this is Isn’t Surprising
No one would be surprised when a house built on sand crumbles to the ground. Its foundation is weak, no shock there.
It’s a shame most people don’t apply similar thinking to goal setting.
If you build you goal on a poor foundation the odds that your plan will crumble are high.
There are two phases to goal striving; a motivational phase and a volitional phase. Volitional just refers to the planning phase.
Motivational phases refer to all the cognitive processes that go on in your brain before you decide you want to make a change. Motivational phases end with the formation of a goal or an intention.
I say it’s not surprising that the social perfectionists failed at reaching their goals for two reasons.
- The form of motivation was weak so it’s not a shock that their house fell apart
- Most people fail at New Year’s resolutions, once again the foundation for the goal is usually weak (goals formed because it is ‘time’ to form a goal rather than because they want to).
Self Determination Theory is a motivational theory that distinguishes between extrinsic and intrinsic forms of motivation.
Let’s say someone makes a health goal formed out of guilt. They feel bad about how they look compared to others or they feel pressure to perform a certain way.
These people and the ones in the study by Powers are demonstrating a form of extrinsic motivation called introjected regulation.
In other words, their goal was built on a bad foundation and it didn’t mean anything to them personally.
Stronger forms of motivation for behaviors are built when a person thinks the goal is important, if the goal is consistent with other life goals or values, or if they want to do a behavior simply because they enjoy it.
People who try to make changes before proper cognitive processes have taken place tend to fail*.
People who exercise or eat fruits and vegetables because they know it is consistent with other life values have a strong foundation. For people like this forming a plan would be appropriate.
Don’t Even Think About Making a Plan Until You Have Found Your ‘Why’
Making a switch from a poor motivational foundation to a strong one might take some time.
Luckily, being healthier can help with just about anything so it’s not overly challenging to make a link between activities you are already motivated for and fitness (i.e. integrated or identified regulation).
Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising can add high quality years onto your life so if you are already doing something you love being healthy will extend the amount of time that you can do this.
To help find a strong motivational foundation check out a post I wrote several months ago that goes into detail about finding your why.
Got a Strong Foundation? Start Planning
If you feel that your motivational foundation is strong (i.e. lose weight to do things you love) then by all means start a planning phase.
There are hundreds of behaviors you can start with.
You can check out my barriers to weight loss survey, fill it out and I’ll send you a free customized report with steps to get started.
Once you know what you would like to start with form an implementation intention. If you want to exercise, make it specific. It might look a little like this:
“When I am done with work at 5:30 I will stop at the gym on the way home and do 30 minutes of weight training”.
Because life gets in the way it is also useful to make contingency plans. These might sound like this:
“If I can’t make it to the gym after work I will go for a 30-minute walk after dinner”
“If I can’t make it to the gym after work and if it is raining out I will do body weight squats, sit-ups, and lunges during every commercial break during my favorite show”
Hopefully your A plan will always work out but it is nice to have a B and C plan. Finally, when challenges arise (they will) remind yourself of your motivational foundation.
Because you have a strong foundation it should withstand more than a few bumps in the process.