How Implementation Intentions Are Better Than Plans

Habit Change Is Hard

Like most people, you want to be healthier, lose weight, have more energy, get better sleep, have emotional resiliency and strength, reduce your stress, and become a peak performer. Like most people, you also feel powerless when it comes to your unhealthy habits. You feel like you lack control of your own health behaviors. 

You have a hard time ditching your unhealthy habits (i.e. smoking, drinking excessively, not eating healthy, not sleeping well, not exercising). I can’t blame you! I understand how frustrating and how hard it can be to change those unhealthy habits. 

When you are motivated to change your unhealthy habits, the natural next step you take is to make a plan. That’s great and you’ve gone a step further than most people that aren’t even motivated to change in the first place.

So, you make a plan, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Your plan fails because you don’t end up changing. Why is that? Were you not motivated enough to change? Or, was there a problem with the plan you came up with? 

The Problem With Making Plans

In most situations, the plan is the problem. When making plans, you automatically come up with what I like to call: pseudo-plans. Pseudo-plans aren’t plans you can act on. The vagueness of these pseudo-plans is what leads to the failure to change your unhealthy habits. A plan like: I really want to exercise more is too vague. “Plans” like the aforementioned lack two important characteristics:

  • They don’t have an exact behavior that you want to change
  • They lack an exact situation in which you perform that behavior. 

Implementation Intentions Is The Key

An important concept discussed in Making Habits, Breaking Habits by Jeremey Dean is that of, Implementation Intentions. There is research1 that supports the use of implementation intentions as a effective way of changing habits. 

Implementation intentions will help you to create a link between a specific situation and an action. Implementation intentions consist of an ‘if-then’ statement. Let’s see how implementation intention changes our example above:

  • I really want to exercise more becomes if I am parking my car anywhere, then I will park in the furthest parking spot so I can walk more. 

Implementation intentions work as demonstrated by a several studies23.

A few caveats when using implementation intentions:

  • For the if component; don’t be too specific but also don’t be too vague. Being too narrow limits your possibilities for taking action. But being too vague can make it easy for you to miss those opportunities to practice the habit. 
  • For the if component; don’t use time because this creates the problem of clock-watching which you can’t do effectively all the time. 
  • Be specific with the ‘then’ component 
  • The implementation intentions are about trial and error. You have to find out what will work for you based on your personality and your situation.

Your Mindset Matters

Your mindset plays a major role in whether you succeed or fail at changing your unhealthy habits. You, like most people, will suffer from overwhelming, distracting and self-limiting thoughts. Your inner critic will try to convince you to give up your efforts of changing your unhealthy habits. 

Your inner critic will try to sabotage you by suggesting that all this effort isn’t worth it. Even worse, you are more susceptible to your inner critic’s chatter when things aren’t going great for you; you might be having a bad day, you might be in a bad mood, feeling tired, etc. 

The Good News

The good news is that you can use the ‘if-then’ strategy as a way to defend yourself from these internal mental attacks that will come up. For example, if you are having a bad day and you don’t feel like hitting a 1-hour workout after work you can say: if  I am tired after work and I don’t feel like doing a 1 hour workout, then I will at least do 15 minutes of exercising. 

Changing unhealthy habits is hard. It can even become frustrating when you create pseudo-plans that are too vague for you to act on. Using implementations intentions will help you to create a link between a specific situation and an action. Unlike plans, implementation intentions have an exact behavior that you want to change. They also have an exact situation in which you can perform that behavior. Implementation intentions will help you take actions on the unhealthy habits you are trying to change. 

The Five Things Triggering Your Unhealthy Habits


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