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How to Achieve Your Goals Using a Simple, Science-Based Technique

in Habits

how-to-achieve-your-goalsThe way that you approach the goals you’ve set for yourself is very likely not sophisticated enough.

And you’re not alone – according to research only 8% of Americans achieve their New Years resolutions (1). I bet the rest of the world isn’t doing that much better either.

Coming up with a goal is easy enough. And in the beginning when your inspiration is high making progress isn’t all that difficult.

But then, somewhere along the way, your energy starts to seemingly run out and before not too long your good intentions fizzle out leaving you back on square one. Only a little bit more disappointed than before.

Why is it so hard to just keep trucking on and sticking with the process? Research suggests that one small tweak to your approach can be what’s needed to make all the difference.

What’s Getting In The Way

Professor of psychology Peter Gollwitzer focuses his research on how goals and plans affect cognition, emotion and behavior. He has identified and broken down the common obstacles that derail us from reaching our goals into the following categories (2):

  • Remembering to act – Silly as it may seem, forgetting about our goal is actually a common obstacle on our path to reaching it. You may have made it your goal to write in your journal or practice mindfulness before going to bed. Then you lose track of time as you surf the net or watch TV and before you know it, it’s gotten late and you have to go to bed.
  • Seizing the opportune moment to act – A great opportunity to make progress on your goal arises but you either fail to recognize it or don’t know how to grab it. Perhaps you’re on a long commute that’d be perfect to do some reading but you start browsing Facebook instead.
  • Second thoughts at the critical moment – Gollwitzer calls this ”the problem of overcoming initial reluctance”. In this scenario you realize your opportunity to make progress on your goal but have a difficult time choosing long-term benefits over short-term gratification. You may have made it your goal to lose weight but simply cannot skip that delicious dessert you’re offered.
  • Enticing stimuli – ”I really should finish my homework, but that video game seems so much more interesting.”
  • Suppressing behavioral responses – A fancy way of saying that old habits die hard.
  • Negative states – Depression, stress, nervousness and a sore willpower muscle drain your motivation to follow through on your goals.

Obviously there are a lot of strong forces stacked up against you in your pursuit to achieve your goal. Luckily, there is an effective way to fight back.

How to Achieve Your Goals Using “Implementation Intentions”

So, you have a goal in mind that you want to turn into a reality?

It’s great that you intend to take action. But knowing your goal intention is only half of it. Now you need to figure out an “implementation intention” to support your goal intention.

An implementation intention supports your goal intention by deciding in advance when and where you’ll achieve your goal. It’s a situational cue with a planned response that will move you closer to fulfilling your goal.

This is an effective technique that has been summarized by Gollwitzer as ”passing the control of one’s behavior on to the environment” (3).

What you do is simply reframe your goals as ”IF –> THEN” statements. The ”IF” is the situational que and the ”THEN” is your planned response to that cue.

Here are some examples:

  • ”Journaling daily” becomes:
    IF I’m in bed at night THEN I’ll write in my journal.
  • ”Be more patient” becomes:
    IF I start feeling upset THEN I’ll focus on taking three deep breaths.
  • ”Read more” becomes:
    IF I sit down in the living room couch THEN I’ll pick up an awesome book.

If this sounds overly simplistic to you I completely understand. I did too until I found out that over a decade of research and nearly a hundred studies have shown that implementation intentions are highly effective and can actually double your likelihood of reaching your goals (2).

5 Steps to Effective Implementation Intentions

1. Make sure your goals are crystal clear and truly compelling. You need to know exactly what you want to achieve and why this is important to you. If your goals are vague and/or not truly important to you creating implementation intentions won’t help.

2. Identify the obstacles standing in your way. Do you have difficulties remembering your goal? Are other enticing stimuli stealing your attention? Is a negative state getting in the way?

3. Create the ”IF”. Gollwitzer notes that this could be either an internal cue (a strong feeling) or an external que such a particular time, place, object or person.

4. Create the ”THEN”. This is your chosen response to when the ”IF” cue happens. The response will be designed to keep you on track towards your goal and can involve for example thinking, doing or ignoring something.

5. Be as specific as possible. Vague implementation intentions make room for deliberation and therefore increases the chance of messing it up. Don’t make it ”IF it’s after dinner, THEN I’ll work out”, but rather ”IF it’s 7 PM on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, THEN I’ll put on my running shoes and go outside”.

I’ve had quite a lot of success using this technique. One example is the implementation intention of ”IF I’ve eaten breakfast, THEN I’ll sit down and write”.

If you’re a frequent Selfication reader you’ve likely noticed that I’ve recently published more articles than I used to. This simple technique is a big part of that transformation and it’s been a great tool for me to create an amount of material that’s more in tune with my long-term goals.

Now I’d love to hear how you plan on using this technique. Please share in the comments what your goal is and what your implementation intention will be.

”When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached,
don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

Confucius (Tweet that)


    1. New Years Resolutions Statistics
    2. Implementation Intentions
    3. Implementation Intentions – Strong Effects of Simple Plans

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

If you found this article useful I’d be very grateful if you shared the knowledge with someone you know who’s struggling to achieve a goal of some sort.