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Implementation Intentions: The Secret Weapon to Achieve Your Goals

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Rithm School

Dec 12, 2019

It’s that time of the year again, where everyone is making ambitious goals they will most likely never follow through with. You have probably read about how to set SMART goals and how writing your goals down makes you more likely to achieve them. I recommend both of those strategies, but don’t stop there. Do you set yearly goals? Do you achieve them?

Is one of your goals to get a new job in 2020? What I’m about to discuss can be applied to any goal, but this article will focus on finding a new job. I’ve found that most people find the process of looking for a job inherently boring. Motivation can be fleeting, and difficult to sustain over long periods of time. A typical job search looks something like this: You procrastinate until the pain of your current job (or being unemployed) becomes unbearable. It is only then, in the midst of misery, that your survival instinct kicks in and you give the job search the last drops of your draining energy. You settle for the first thing that falls on your plate, and then it’s only a matter of time for the cycle to repeat itself. How do you minimize, or even better, skip this suffering and achieve your goal? Make a plan that doesn’t rely on motivation alone! When goal setting, make sure you include implementation intentions.

students working on couch

Implementation Intention

An implementation intention is essentially an “if-then” plan to achieve your goals. A common problem in achieving a goal is never getting started. Maybe you are the type of person who is “waiting for inspiration to strike.” You tell yourself you are just going to watch a couple videos on YouTube until you feel like applying to jobs. If you are dependent on your feelings you are most likely setting yourself up for failure. People often experience some resistance to applying to jobs: networking, fixing their resume, etc. The long-term benefits that come from disciplined job seeking do not offer an immediate reward like the instant gratification of browsing reddit or sleeping in. Implementation intentions help solve this problem by making acting for long-term benefits automatic (e.g., “There is no question about it. Tuesday at 9am is the time I apply for jobs”).

Designate What, When and Where

The first step in creating implementation intentions is deciding what behaviors will help you achieve your goal. The second step is deciding when and where this behavior will take place.

Implementation intentions follow a simple format:


If it is 7am on Tuesday, then I will apply to jobs for two hours at the desk in my living room.

If it is 8am on Wednesday, then I will make new connections on LinkedIn and request informational interviews at my kitchen table.

desk with laptop and books

Anticipate obstacles and make a plan

Think about everything that could get in the way of you achieving your goal. Maybe you oversleep, get distracted, or have to deal with interruptions. You are an expert on yourself and your life. Be honest with yourself and think of all the ways you could fail at achieving your goal and write them down. I encourage you to write down 5 things that could get in the way of you attaining your goal. You can also look back at previous goals that you have set. Which ones were you able to accomplish and why? Which ones were you unable to accomplish and why?

Your list might look something like this:

  1. Sleeping in
  2. Distracted by email
  3. Distracted by social media
  4. Roommate interrupts my work by making small talk in the morning.
  5. Rationalizing postponing the task

Now that you have a list of your biggest obstacles you can make a plan to deal with each one:

Sleeping in
If I was unable to apply for jobs in the morning, then I will apply to jobs for 2 hours after I eat dinner.

If I open my email, I will immediately close the tab before I open anything.
If I do find myself opening an email, then I will immediately close it and mark it as unread.

Social Media
If I find myself checking my phone, then I will put it in the other room and resume working on my goals.
If I find myself opening a tab to login to social media, then I will immediately close it.

If my roommate interrupts me in the morning, then I will inform them of my intentions and ask them not to talk to me while I apply to jobs from 7am – 9am.

If I try to convince myself to procrastinate, then I will remind myself that later may never come and start working immediately.

Stories of success

As the instructor of a motivation class at San Francisco State University, I have observed the power of implementation intentions. I have my students set a big goal for themselves on the first day of the semester and we track their progress every week. At the end of the semester when they write their final report on their semester long goals, implementation intentions are frequently cited as a key strategy in successfully reaching their goals.

Many studies have been able to replicate the effectiveness of implementation intentions. In one of the earlier experiments, researchers asked college students going home for a holiday break what they wanted to get accomplished (e.g., write a paper, read a book, solve a family conflict). The researchers asked half of the students to set implementation intentions to achieve their goals (e.g., On the afternoon of December 22nd, I will go to the library and write a first draft of my term paper). The other half were simply encouraged to do their best to accomplish their goal. When the students returned from break, the majority of students that set implementation intentions achieved their goal, while only a minority of the other group achieved their goal.

Personally, I have had a goal of learning to speak Spanish for a long time. I’ve set goals related to learning Spanish for the new year, almost every year, but here I am still unable to speak Spanish. I’ve tried hiring a Spanish tutor once a week, but I still was barely practicing outside of the lesson. It wasn’t until I decided to make implementation intentions around my goal that I really made progress. Now every weekday morning I practice Spanish for 15 minutes at my desk in the living room. If I forget or get distracted, then I practice for the first 15 minutes during my lunch. I’m still not quite conversational, but I’m making progress at a faster rate than ever.

If you want to take a deeper dive into this subject I would recommend checking out the book. Atomic Habits by James Clear. There is a quote in there that summarizes all of this quite nicely:

“We do not rise to the level of our goals, but we fall to the level of our systems”
-James Clear

So next time you set a goal for yourself, make sure you create a system that significantly increases your chances of success. Don’t stop at writing down SMART goals, but take the time to plan when you will work towards achieving them. Think of everything that could stop you from achieving your goals and make a plan to deal with each obstacle. Harness the power of implementation intentions to reach things that are important to you, and don’t rely on motivation alone. Stop making excuses, and start making a plan!

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