In this article you will learn how implementation intentions can help you to form new habits quickly and effectivly.

Millions of people in the world make New Year’s resolutions each year. Still, only a tiny fraction of the people manage to keep them.

Through my habit coaching practice, I have identified five common mistakes people make when they are trying to form a new habit:

  1. They do not make the behaviour specific enough.
  2. They choose habits that are too difficult.
  3. They do not create trigger systems.
  4. They create “should habits” and not “want habits”.
  5. They do not align their environment or identity with their desired new habit.

Most people assume that people who follow through with their resolutions do so because they have more willpower or motivation, but that does not seem to be the case.

In today’s article, I am going to share with you a fun study, which reveals that motivation is not the most crucial variable in the habit loop.

I am also going to introduce you to an idiot-proof technique that will help you to stick to your resolutions and form new habits effectively and quickly.

Motivation Is Overrated

“You have it easy Daniel, you just naturally have a lot of willpower… My genetics are what they are, I’m just not an athlete like you, there isn’t a whole lot that I can do about it,” a client of mine recently said to me.

In my private practice, I stumble over disempowering beliefs like that a lot. The most toxic beliefs, however, crumble if one takes the effort of investigating the validity of the claim.

My client did not have any intel about the quality of his genetics or mine for that matter. It was an unhelpful assumption by them to conclude that they have different fitness results because I was born with more willpower or better genetics.

Of course, this could be the case, but it could easily be the case that my health and fitness habits were just superior.

While willpower and genetics are important, there is something more important…

The Power Of Implementation Intentions

In 2001, scientists from England conducted a study with 248 individuals who wanted to build better habits1.

The first group was simply advised to track their habits and write down how often they exercised.

The second group was called the “motivation” group. They were also asked to write down how often they exercised. But they were given reading material about the benefits of working out. The reading material also included the negative consequences of not working out, so they tried to tap both into hope and fear for motivation.

The third group was the most interesting; they received the same reading material as the “motivation” group but were also asked to create tiny behavioural strategies – implementation intentions.

They all had to complete the sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on {Day} at {Time} in {Place}2“.

Implementation Intentions Habits

The Results: Strategy > Motivation

In the first two groups, 35 to 38% of the people worked out at least once per week.

Surprisingly, 91% of the group who had to articulate the behavioural strategies actually worked out at least once a week.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Simply strategically writing down your goals leads to a significant increase in the probability that the behaviour is actually going to occur.

What is even more mind-blowing is that the motivation group and control group performed the same, the research even went so far as to say:

Motivation… had no significant effect on the exercise’s behaviour.

Compare these discoveries to my client, who claimed that they could not work out due to their shortage of willpower.

One of the things that I learned while deconstructing some of the most successful people in the world on my Podcast was that outstanding people do not necessarily have outstanding talent. But, they all had an outstanding standard of behavioural execution.

The study suggests that it is indeed not only the size of our dreams that matters but also the quality of our execution.

The Habit Formula

The behavioural strategy that group three used is what psychologists call implementation intentions or in short – if-then plans.

If you have read my last articles about the anatomy of behaviour, then you already know a lot about habit loops. What the researchers did was to let the members of the group create a reminder. This go sign enabled the participants of the study to act after the command.

The reminder is the first ingredient of the habit formula. This reminder can be an external alarm, an internal feeling, another habit, a thought, another person telling you what to do, or even the smell of a Dorito bag.

The second ingredient of the formula is a specific routine. The simpler and more clearly defined the habit, the higher the chances that the individual actually follows through with them.

Another reason why people fail with their resolutions is that they confuse habit bundles for specific behaviours.

Going to the gym, for example, is not a single habit, it is a stack of different behaviours, including putting on shoes, showering, lifting weights, driving to the gym, etc.

The more specific your habit recipe is, the simpler it will be to investigate whether or not you have chosen the right place in your schedule for your desired new habit.

Many people underestimate the complexity of their habits and try to squeeze big rituals into tiny time slots, only to be surprised that they never find the “time” to do what they want to do.

Example: If you want to work out, you have to find a spot in your schedule that also has space for the surrounding habits of your exercise routine (driving to the gym, showering, cool off time, flexing in the mirror, protein drink, recovery). Working out might only cost you forty minutes. But, if you take everything into consideration, it is more like an hour at least.

The third and last ingredient of the habit formula is the why behind the behaviour, we are all lazy creatures who need a reason to act.

At the moment of action, we have to believe that our behavioural Investment will give us the result that we want to have.

Example: We exercise because we value the goal of being in shape.

The easiest way to form new habits can, therefore, be condensed into this habit formula3:

After I {Reminder}, I will {Routine} because {Reason}.

Yup that is it. It does not look too complicated, right? That is because it is not. Understanding the anatomy of behaviour is easy, mastering the art of habit formation still takes time and effort though.

Think of it this way. Just because you understand the rules of basketball, does not mean that you can score a basket in an actual basketball game.

Based on this truth, I will now share with you three stories from behaviour architects who managed to create new habits with the help of the habit formula.

Habit Formation In The Real World

Josh: How I Managed To Read A Book A Week 

“Before I discovered the habit formula, I relied on my motivation to perform new habits. For years I wanted to become a speed reader, but I never managed to make the reading habit stick. My motivation is a bit like a wave, sometimes I’m hyper-motivated, and I actually manage to sit my ass down and read 50+ pages a night. And sometimes I just don’t feel like it. Because of this pattern, I lost my reading routine every time I was stuck in a motivational valley. What helped me was to create an action plan that integrated all three habit ingredients – Reminder – Routine – Reason.

My habit formula was simple –

“After my butt touches my bed sheets at night, I will pick up the book next to my bed because reading books will help me to become who I want to be.”

In the beginning, my habit was only to pick up the book, that by itself was a success. After all, it’s about hacking the automation behind the behaviour, right? After four days of doing it, it became habitual for my brain to touch my books once I came home from work. What helped me to make the habit stick was the combination of forming a reminder and saying out loud why this behavioural investment is worth it.

It’s been 6 months now since I formed this habit and I feel much more competent in my work and also in my overall life.

Susanne: How I Managed To Improve My Relationship In Record Time 

“When I got my new promotion, I felt that I was going to be so happy. Finally, more money and more status. I worked hard and long for that outcome, and when it happened, I immediately promised to over-deliver. I lived for my job, everything else wasn’t a priority. As you can imagine, my relationship went down the toilet. My boyfriend wasn’t happy anymore and nearly broke up with me. I realised that I have to live a more balanced life to keep my favourite human in my life. I started to investigate episodes of our relationship where things were doing great, which allowed me to create my own relationship success recipe.

This recipe showed me that my boyfriend was ok with me working a lot, what he wasn’t ok with was feeling like he doesn’t have a place in my life anymore.

To counter this painful outcome, I formed a new relationship habit:

After I leave the house, I will leave my boyfriend a voice message where I tell him how much I love him because this will show him that he still is my favourite human in the world.

This daily ritual deepened our bond, and with time, both he and I learned to always make room for each other in our busy lives. I love him, and I will marry him soon.

Mario: How I Managed To Beat My Shopping Compulsion 

“I don’t know where it comes from, but damn, no matter how much money I make, I find a way to spend all of it within the first two weeks. This pattern hurts my partner and me. I make good money, and there is absolutely no reason for me to constantly put myself in painful financial situations because of my shopping sprees. Sometimes it’s a new camera, other times it’s a new home entertainment set… I never stick to my budget. After a particularly painful month where I couldn’t buy my partner a gift she wanted, I decided to make a shift and form a new habit against my shopping addiction. Whenever I would think about buying something, I would do the following habit:

After I want to buy something, I will ask myself whether or not I really need this because turning a blind eye to my finances hurts me very much.

Most of my shopping urges go away that way. The combination of having a counter habit, and simultaneously reminding myself that this habit is hurting me helps me to skip it most of the time entirely. Fuck, I would even go so far as to call me a minimalist now. When I didn’t buy new stuff for a month, I feel like a financial wizard. This habit gives me confidence and helps me to become more of who I want to be.

Where To Go From Here?

Learning about habit formation is a skill that will enable you to transform yourself from who you are today into who you need to become, to give birth to a newer, better version of yourself.

Every habit, no matter how tiny, mundane, or insignificant moves you either closer or further away from becoming the person who is capable of producing the life results that you are after.

Implementation intentions like the habit formula are great because they give you the means to change the course of your life one habit at a time, and the only question that is left for you to ask is:

Where Do You Want To Go And What Habits Will Bring You There?

Do You Want To Change Your Habits? 

 

Footnotes

  1. Sarah Milne, Sheina Orbell, and Paschal Sheeran, “Combining Motivational and Volitional Interventions to Promote Exercise Participation: Protection Motivation Theory and Implementation Intentions”, British Journal of Health Psychology 7 (May 2002): 163–184.
  2. James Clear. (2020, February 04). Achieve Your Goals: The Simple Trick That Doubles Your Odds of Success. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://jamesclear.com/implementation-intentions
  3. My former teacher Professor Fogg from Stanford University introduced me to this version of the implementation intention. Still, I felt that it is more effective if people identify their “why” behind their behaviour also.

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