By Aline Holzwarth
We often hold vague notions about what we want to do for our health. You might say you want to exercise more, eat healthier, or stick to the doctor’s orders. But it’s not often that we transform those fuzzy desires into concrete action plans. And yet, we would be so much more likely to succeed if we simply set better goals to plan our behavior before those moments of temptation hit.
How to Set Better Goals with Implementation Intentions
We’ve written before about the magical powers of implementation intentions, which is what informs this goal-setting guide. Now it’s time for you to set your own goals using implementation intentions. Just follow these four simple steps and you’ll be well on your way to supercharging your health goals.
Or read on to learn more about each step.
1. Choose your Big Goal
Do you want to start flossing? Perhaps you want to have more energy or feel stronger. How about decreasing your stress? Increasing the number of veggies you eat? Creating deeper bonds with your friends? Adhering to a complicated medication regimen?
Once you’ve chosen your Big Goal, make it “SMART” with the following steps.
Specific – make your goal as specific as possible. Then make it even more specific.
Measurable – how will you know when you’ve reached your goal? s
Achievable – it’s good to set challenging goals, but make sure you can succeed. Is your goal possible?
Relevant – how is your goal related to the things that are important to you in life?
Time-bound – when will you reach your goal?
Say your Big Goal is to stay hydrated. Here’s how you can make that goal even better.
Specific: I want to drink 8 glasses of water a day in order to stay hydrated.
Measurable: Each glass has ~8 oz of water in it, and I need to drink 8 of them every day.
Achievable: I have access to drinkable water and glasses
Relevant: I want to do this because I read about the health benefits of drinking water and it is important to me to stay healthy.
Time-bound: I would like to start this immediately, and continue this behavior indefinitely.
2. List your Goal Steps
What do you need to do to reach your goal? If you need to get 8 hours of sleep a night, how will you achieve that? (What time do you need to go to sleep and what time do you need to wake up? When do you need to start your bedtime routine -- pajamas, facewash, brushing teeth -- to get to sleep on time? How will you finish up all that you need to do in order to start your bedtime routine on time? And hey, we get it, it’s hard to be in bed before 10pm! You often find yourself making dinner too late, then responding to emails far later than you intend, and then you just want to relax and feel better about life with an episode or four of Queer Eye. Ok, we might have some experience with this..)
For the purpose of this example, let’s stick with our “drink 8 glasses of water a day,” big goal and list the corresponding goal steps.
Create a tentative schedule for drinking each glass of water
1. Right when I wake up
2. With breakfast
3-4. At lunch (2 glasses)
5. On the way home from work
6-7. With dinner (2 glasses)
8. Right before bed
Keep track of my water drinking throughout the day so I know when my daily goal has been reached
Fill my water bottle in the morning to bring to work (where I can refill it later)
Bring my water bottle with me to work
Take my water bottle back home
Wash the water bottle and put it somewhere I won’t forget it tomorrow
3. Identify your Obstacles
There are lots of things that could get in the way of your goal steps. Most of these obstacles will be surmountable, but you’ll be more likely to overcome them if you foresee them to make a plan in advance.
Sticking with the water-drinking example, let’s list out some things that could go wrong.
I forget to drink in the morning when I wake up
I don’t want to drink water with breakfast because I am desperate for caffeine and want to drink coffee
I order a non-water drink at lunch or dinner when eating out and am not thirsty for water
I forget my water bottle at home
I run out of time
I’m not in the mood
I’m not excited about drinking water
I’m not thirsty
4. Make an If-Then Plan
What will you do if these obstacles come to fruition? Set an implementation intention in the form of “if [obstacle from Step 3] occurs, then I will [plan to overcome the obstacle]”
For all the obstacles you listed in Step 3, think through what you will do in each situation.
If I forget to drink in the morning when I wake up, then I will have an extra glass with breakfast
If I don’t want to drink water with breakfast because I am desperate for caffeine and want to drink coffee, then I will drink coffee in addition to water
If I order a non-water drink at lunch or dinner when eating out and am not thirsty for water, then I will still drink two glasses of water (in addition to the other drink) rather than replacing my water with that other drink
If I forget my water bottle at home, then I will use a backup glass that I keep at work for drinking water throughout the workday
If I run out of time, then I will make sure to have water with me so I can drink it while partaking in other activities (like walking, being in meetings, while working, commuting)
If I’m not in the mood, then I will ask a friend or coworker to hold me to my goal
If I’m not excited about drinking water, then I will create a water-drinking ritual to make it more enjoyable
If I’m not thirsty, then I will remember why it is important to me to drink water, and do it anyway
P.S. We are very much interested in how you are using behavioral science for your health. If you’ve made your goals based on this guide, send us a tweet @ptrnhealth to let us know what it is
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.