Mind & Body

Strengthen Your New Year's Resolution With Implementation Intentions

It's the time of year when we start to think about what we want to achieve in the next 12 months — and start to dread the many things that could get in your way. Want to lose a few pounds? You're probably thinking about the office snacks you'll have to give up. Want to drink a little less? You're probably worried about the happy hours where you see your friends. If it seems like something always gets in the way of your long-term goals, you're not entirely wrong.

But what if there was a way to move confidently through those obstacles? Good news — there is. It's all about "implementation intentions."

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

In the 1980s, a New York University researcher named Peter Gollwitzer found that for most people, the hardest thing about sticking to a long-term goal wasn't willpower or motivation. Instead, it all came down to overcoming the short-term urges that could derail their progress. You might plan to eat healthy food all week, but then the grocery store has a sale on donuts or Cheetos. Oh no! Your goal flies out the window and the donuts fly into your shopping cart.

To help that happen less, Gollwitzer began testing a technique he called "implementation intentions," which have come to be known as "if/then" tactics. Gollwitzer and his colleagues conducted hundreds of studies and found that no matter the goal, anticipating obstacles is what helps people stick with it. When people envision the bad things that can happen and make a plan for how to move past those setbacks, they're more likely to meet their goals.

It's not just about imagining what could go wrong. For some people, that part is paralyzing. Instead, Gollwitzer's strategy involves envisioning taking actions. It's one way to turn a feeling of dread (what could go wrong?!) into a plan (here's how I'll get through it!).

The coolest part of Gollwitzer's work: The more difficult the goal, the better this strategy works. And if/then tactics aren't just for type-A people who want to optimize their long-term goals. The strategy works best for people who struggle with perseverance, patience, and impulse control. He found that people with schizophrenia, alcoholism, and ADHD, in particular, had success resisting distractions and temptations with this method.

Implement Those Intentions

Here's how it works: Basically, you take time to think about all the obstacles that might come up on your way to meeting a goal. Then you come up with concrete strategies you'll use to overcome them. If you were trying to eat healthy, for example, you'd jot down your goals (no more sugary snacks!) and then make a note of the temptations you could possibly face (walking by the office soda vending machine). Finally, you'd make a plan for how to resist those temptations (keep healthy snacks at your desk and eat one when hunger hits).

This works for all sorts of goals. People who want to use social media less might decide that when the urge hits during a boring point in a work project, they'll take a walk around the office instead. People who want to spend less money might anticipate seeing Instagram ads and email coupons for their favorite brands, and decide that they'll listen to their favorite music when that happens.

Ready to try it out? Here's a template. Next time you have a goal, open up your notetaking app. Then, follow this template: "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y." Finally, make intentions for how you're going to respond and tie those intentions to a specific time and place. You can do it! You just have to plan for the worst.

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For more tips on meeting your goals, check out "Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones" by James Clear. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk December 20, 2019

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