Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at NYU, knows more about goal setting and accomplishment than most people. He ‘s been studying goals for over a decade. In a recent interview, Gollwitzer explained the 3 biggest challenges that people run into while striving for their goals:
1. Getting started. For a variety of reasons, the hardest part of any goal pursuit is the first step.
2. We don’t choose the right means. In other words we might know what our goal is, but we haven’t determined the best pathway to reach that goal.
3. Persistence in the face of challenge. Once we do start on our path to success, invariably life will throw some curves our way. If we are not prepared for the obstacles, hurdles, or tempting distractions that we find along the way, we’re likely to get knocked off our path.
Gollwitzer’s studies led him to find a solution to these problems—a solution which has been tested and proven effective repeatedly in his research. The solution is called “implementation intentions,” or more simply, defining the “when, where and how” your goal will be accomplished.
The initial piece of iconic research that is often used to explain implementation intentions is a study done by Gollwitzer and Brandstatter in 1997 in which they asked college students to write a report (for no credit) over their Christmas holiday. Two groups of students were given the same assignment (to write about how they spent their Christmas Eve—they were told it was a study on how people spend vacations in modern times.)
Only one of the groups was told to establish their implementation intentions. They were told to name when and where they would do the assignment (e.g. “I’ll do it the day after Christmas on my laptop in my father’s office.”) Amazingly, the simple act of “pre-deciding” when and where they would do the work made it more than twice as likely that they would complete their goal.
Goal intentions are about naming your desired outcomes. But implementation intentions help you to outline the means you will take to reach your goal.
By now it should be clear how implementation intentions helps us overcome the first two challenges of goal striving. Many people set goals but never get started on accomplishing them because they haven’t defined when and where they are going to start.
By adding an addendum to your New Year’s resolutions you can overcome the difficulty of starting. Planning to lose weight or exercise more? When and where does your new regimen begin?
The third problem can be overcome by another variation of this same idea: the “if-then” implementation intention. To help you overcome the inevitable hurdles and temptations that might lead you off course, you pre-decide how you will handle them by creating “if-then” statements.
If you have a goal to exercise more, for example, and you set your implementation intention to go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5pm, then what is your contingency plan when something gets in the way?
“If I have to stay late at work on Monday, then I will work out at 7am on Tuesday.”
“If my colleagues want to go to the bar for happy hour after work, then I will go to the gym and tell them I will meet them there a little bit later.”
By pre-deciding, you don’t have to make a decision when the temptation or challenge is right in front of you. This is known as “strategic automaticity”: You put the plan in place and then just stick to the plan. Or Gollwitzer calls this an “instant habit.” Rather than carving a new habit over time, you pre-decide what your new response will be to a certain cue.
You can also create if-then statements to help you when you are not seeing the progress you desire (e.g. if I have not lost five pounds by April, then I will begin doing aerobics classes on Tuesday and Thursday.)
Implementation intentions are a simple, proven way to increase your chances of success with your New Years’ resolutions. So as you look at your goals for 2013, ask yourself, when and where are you going to start? And if something gets in your way, then what will you do? Pre-decide, and make this a year of transformation.
by Jeremy McCarthy
P.S. My course on Positive Leadership in Spas and Hospitality will be starting again on January 21. In my course I’ll be teaching other strategies for goal accomplishment. If you would like to learn more about the course, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope to see some of you there!