By Aline Holzwarth
“If I am parking, then I will park in the spot farthest from my destination.”
“If I wake up tomorrow morning, then I will put on my shoes and go on a 20 minute run.”
“If I am feeling tempted to eat a cookie, then I will put tape over the lid of the cookie jar.”
“If there are fried things on the menu, then I will not order them.”
“If I finish brushing my teeth, then I will take my medications.”
“If I am about to shower, then I will weigh myself on the scale.”
“If there are stairs, then I will take them.”
These are all examples of what behavioral scientists call “implementation intentions” (sorry, it’s a mouthful — scientists don’t always play nice when they invent their terms). I won’t tell you which of these implementation intentions I’ve applied to my own life, but I will tell you that it’s more than one. These kinds of if-then plans are remarkably effective at translating vague desires into concrete action plans that might actually come to fruition. What are implementation intentions, and how do they work?
Implementation Intentions are Specific Plans for Behavior
Implementation intentions are specific plans for behavior. There are hundreds of studies showing just how effective implementation intentions can be (see Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006 for a meta-analysis), a surprising finding given how simple they are to create. Just by setting a specific plan for your desired behavior, you’re more likely to follow through. And when I say specific, I mean really specific. The best plans include all the whos, whats, whens, wheres and hows.
Situations Trigger Reactions
If the first part of implementation intentions is adding more specificity around a particular behavior, then the second part is choosing a situational trigger that will cue your planned response.
Let me dissect that a bit. Implementation intentions usually take the form of, “If situation A occurs, then I will do X behavior.” The situation then becomes a trigger for the behavior when it comes up in real life.
Take this one, for example: “If there are stairs, then I will take them.” Seeing a staircase becomes a trigger for walking up them. If you confront a set of stairs (which generally show up where there’s an elevator or escalator around), then you already have a rule established in advance to guide your behavior. This rule makes the decision for you; it determines that you will choose the stairs over any other alternatives. Taking the elevator is simply not an option — you have eliminated it from your choice set.
Implementation Intentions in Pattern Health
At Pattern Health we use implementation intentions to help patients make better plans. In one study, congestive heart failure patients who need to carefully monitor their weight used implementation intentions to remember to step on the scale. They did so by deciding when they would take a measurement that afternoon, choosing their preferred situational trigger for stepping on the scale (see screenshot). They chose between stepping on the scale before or after dinner, or before or after brushing their teeth.
So, for example, if patient chose “after dinner” then their if-then statement was: “If I have finished eating dinner, then I will step on the scale,” and finishing dinner served as their cue to step on the scale.
When these patients set an implementation intention, they were twice as likely to take the afternoon weight measurement. As you can see in the graph, heart failure patients who set an implementation intention stepped on the scale 70% of the time compared to only 36% of the time when they didn’t set an implementation intention.
And all they did was decide when exactly they planned to step on the scale. That’s the beauty of implementation intentions. They are as easy as can be, and remarkably effective. So if you are looking to turn your fuzzy goals into actual results, why not try setting up some implementation intentions?
P.S. We are very much interested in how you are using behavioral science for your health. If you’ve made your own implementation intentions, send us a tweet @ptrnhealth to let us know what it is.
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.
About the author
Aline HolzwarthHead of Behavioral Science
Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. She is Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, an evidence-based connected care platform that leverages behavioral science to help patients stick to their care plans. She also co-founded the Behavior Shop, a behavioral science advisory company, and holds an appointment as Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier, at home and abroad.