So I have realised that this blogging thing is harder than I thought and takes a lot of time, especially when researching is involved. A couple weeks ago, after I first created my blog, I thought of an awesome topic that I wanted to write about. While researching, I got a little carried away and realised that there was so much to write about and it would take more time than I expected. I also get side tracked really easily and came across an article about behaviour change, leading me to where we are now. This wasn’t the original idea I had for my next blog (which is still in the making), but I thought it was an interesting topic.
Every part of our lives involves decision making and motivations that steer us in certain directions, whether we are conscious of it or not. Some motivations are deeply woven into the fabric of our biology and are tightly regulated, such as motivation for eating, sleeping and sex (all the important things right?). Others we have more control over and aren’t as tightly regulated, such as pretty much every choice you make on a daily basis. Although some of these decision might actually be sculpted by others (from marketing/advertising, priming and such) and some might go against your biological wants (not eating that delicious piece of fatty and sugary chocolate cake), in the most part, we are in control of what we choose to do.
In short, behaviour, motivation, choice, and decision making are complicated. There are a number of different inputs that can affect why people act the way they do, some basic examples are; a person’s needs, beliefs and values; emotions; and external events.1 I do not intend to explain behaviour here, but give a snippet of one strategy/theory of how to control behaviour and help achieve the goal and intention that you set for yourself.
Although ‘the student life’ might seem laid back and relaxing, it is usually a delicate balancing act of studying, work, family/social life and leisure activities. An average week during mid semester for me could involve going to class a couple days, working a couple of days, training every afternoon, studying every night, some extra curricula activities for a few hours, the occasional dinner party, a weekend adventure doing some hiking or climbing, meal prep and other house work duties (shopping laundry and such). Some days I get stressed and wonder why I pack so much on my plate, but the truth is that I actually cope better and get more done when my scheduled is full. My secret is planning and organisation; making specific times for when I will do things and anticipating possible setbacks or barriers that could get in the way.
The following text will explain one theory of goal setting, giving a description and explanation of how it works. Then some of the strength and weaknesses will be looked at followed by steps of how to use it in your life.
The strategy that will be looked at is called implementation intention, which is basically a pre-planned way to act in a specific situation. In other words, it is an ‘if-then what’ plan.2 Implementation intention can be broke down into two different subgroups, Sniehotta, et al.3 labels these as action planning and coping planning. Action planning is the planning of when, where and how to act in a certain environment cue. This is useful for the initiation of an action (when you first decide to make a new habit) for the first few weeks or month, until the behaviour becomes routine. An example of this is if you have a goal of getting fit and running more. Instead of just going for a run whenever you get some free time, you make a specific plan of how you will achieve this –“When the time is 4pm, then I will go for a 30 minute run around the block”. After the behaviour has become routine and habitual, the focus is shifted to protecting these routines.
Coping planning is a barrier-focused self-regulation strategy, use to overcome future obstacle and barriers. For example, say you have been sticking to your goal of running for 30 minutes at 4pm most days. But some days you had a hard day at work and just don’t feel like it. Coping planning works by acknowledging that you will have these barriers and creating an implementation intention around it. “If I have a hard day at work, then I will come home and relax for 30 minutes and go for my run at 4:30pm”.
Implementation intention works by reducing cognitive effort at the time of decision making, leaving more cognitive resource available to focus on the goal itself .4 In other words, say you have the goal of not eating sugary snacks, but when the situation arises where you are offered a sugary snack, due to time restrains of the decision making, social pressures/conformity and biologically wanting of that delicious treat, you may give in and accept it.
By having an intention of what you will do in a situation that will threaten your goal (getting offered sugary snacks when you are trying to avoid them), less time or cognitive effort is needed in deciding what to do or say, as a plan has already been set into place. So the intention could be – “if I get offered a sugary snack, then I will decline politely and explain that I am avoiding high sugary foods”. The more you visualise each possible barrier and situation that will threaten your goal, and visualise yourself saying/acting on your intention, the stronger it will become.
Another possible explanation of why implementation intention work is, because it is the person’s own free choice to make the implementation intention, they may experience cognitive dissonance if they do not follow through with the plan. In other words, if a person freely chooses to make an intention or goal and puts power to that intention by verbalising or visualising it, then they are more likely to go ahead with the behaviour.5 If they do not, they are likely to feel a mental conflict (cognitive dissonance) as their intentions and behaviour did not match up.
For goal directed behaviour to be successful, tenacity and flexibility are both needed. Tenacity is commitment and determination to see the goal to completion, even in the face of difficulties and obstacles. Flexibility is being able to take a step back from what is in front of you and being able to disengage with the goal, so it can be modify and constraints can be overcome.6 Implementation intentions greatly increase tenacity by pre-planning what your behaviour will be in a situation. This however weakens flexibility, as the implementation intentions are specific and do not allow for multiple options of what behaviour you can choose in the specific situation.
Two studies are important for this point. Firstly, a study by Vinkers, et al.4 looked at this exact problem, of implementation intentions weakening flexibility. They proposed that having a plan B or a flexible-implementation could allow flexibility while keeping tenacity. The idea here was that, for the situation (eating unhealthy snacks due to boredom) the participants would have a dominant implementation intention (distraction – doing something to preoccupy them from being bored). They would also have a plan B strategy (replacement – replacing the unhealthy snack with a healthy one) in case the dominant intention didn’t work or could not be achieved. Their results found that having more than one implementation intention weakened the tenacity of the goal directed behaviour thus it was not as successful as only having the dominant strategy. This suggests that having more than one plan is similar to having no plan, in that it still requires cognitive effort in deciding what to do when the situation arises.
The second study conducted by Ajzen, et al.7, looked at the difference between having a specific, general and no implementation intention. Participants were asked to watch and review a local and national newscast on the same day in a particular month. The first group were asked to write down what day in the month they planned to complete the task (specific), the second group were asked what week in the month they would complete the task (general) and the third group when asked to complete the task within the allocated month (no implementation intention). The results tested how many participants actually completed the task within the guidelines given. It was found that there was no significant difference between the specific and general group (group 1 and 2) on how many people completed the task, although these two groups did differ significantly from the third group that were not given a specific time to complete the task. This suggests that an implementation intention does not have to be specific, but a general intention will see the behaviour carried out. One explanation for this is that a person’s commitment to go through with a specific behaviour will increase if they implement an intention to do so, regardless of if that intention is specific or general.
The key points to take out of these two studies are:
- Forming an implementation intention can reduce cognitive stress at times of decision making, thus increasing the likelihood of going through with a planned behaviour.
- Implementation intentions increase commitment to a goal. As explained earlier, this may work as there is more incentive to complete the task to avoid cognitive dissonance.
- An implementation intention can be specific or general, in that as long as you commit to the goal it will increase likelihood of you achieving it.
For best results, I personally think that in most cases it would be best to make implementation intentions as specific as possible, which will increase commitment and decrease cognitive energy when the time comes to implement them. However, when it is not possible to make a specific intention due to unknown circumstances, then a general intention will work. As long as only one implementation intention is made (whether specific or general) for any one specific situation, then I think this is a good strategy for keeping tenacity for the behaviour directed goal, while also giving some flexibility where needed.
Here is how to get started:
- Think of the goal that you want to achieve (saving money, eating healthy, exercising, etc.) and make sure it is clear and specific.
- Develop the ‘If’. For action plans, think about a specific time and/or situation you will use. The more specific the better; so exercising Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5pm is better than 3 times a week. For coping plans, think about all the possible barriers that you could come up against (shopping while hungry leads to buying lots of snacks).
- Develop the ‘Then What’. For action plans, think about exactly what you will do and how you will do it. Instead of exercising on Monday at 5pm, try going for a run around the block 3 times, or going to the gym for 1 hour where I will do half an hour of strength training (state what exercises you will actually do) and half an hour of cardio (rowing, cycling, running). For coping plans, come up with a strategy you will use when the ‘If’ situation arises. Be realistic and specific – “if I am hungry and need to shop for groceries, then I will eat something before I go” (state what you are likely to always have in the house).
- Write all of this down on a piece of paper and read to yourself aloud a couple of times daily.
- Reeve, J. Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.) – Hoboken, NJ – John Wiley & Sons – 2009
- Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans.American psychologist,54(7), 493. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.7.493
- Sniehotta, F. F., Schwarzer, R., Scholz, U., & Schüz, B. (2005). Action planning and coping planning for long‐term lifestyle change: theory and assessment.European Journal of Social Psychology,35(4), 565-576. doi:10.1002/ejsp.258
- Vinkers, C. D., Adriaanse, M. A., Kroese, F. M., & de Ridder, D. T. (2015). Better sorry than safe: Making a Plan B reduces effectiveness of implementation intentions in healthy eating goals.Psychology & health,30(7), 821-838. doi:10.1080/08870446.2014.997730
- Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Mechanisms of implementation intention effects: the role of goal intentions, self‐efficacy, and accessibility of plan components.British Journal of Social Psychology,47(3), 373-395. doi:10.1348/014466607X267010
- Kelly, R. E., Wood, A. M., & Mansell, W. (2013). Flexible and tenacious goal pursuit lead to improving well-being in an aging population: A ten-year cohort study.International Psychogeriatrics,25(01), 16-24. doi:10.1017/S1041610212001391
- Ajzen, I., Czasch, C., & Flood, M. G. (2009). From Intentions to Behavior: Implementation Intention, Commitment, and Conscientiousness1.Journal of Applied Social Psychology,39(6), 1356-1372. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00485.x