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Implementation Intentions

This information is based on, or at least heavily backed by, the research of Peter M. Gollwitzer (offsite) and his article entitled "Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans" published in American Psychologist, July 99, pp. 493-503.

I had a school assignment and I had to read up on something in an issue of American Psychologist. The Gollwitzer article caught my eye. As I read it, I realized I had been doing this, or something very very much like it, already. It helped me realize what I was doing on a more conscious level, however, and helps me put it into words and discrete steps so that people can follow it, learn it, implement it, and track their progress with it. Excellent. *grins* I've been meaning to write up something practical on the subject for a while now. -- The Crisses


There is a method to the madness of creating goals and research is delving into how to make more effective plans to achieve goals.

There are goals -- broad ideas of things we'd like to do ("I'd like to lose weight."). And there's the methods in which we will achive the goals (intentions, such as "I'm going to diet."). Implementation intentions are exceptionally specific actions we plan to take -- something we fully expect to DO ("Whenever I go out to eat, I'm going to order a salad platter with a non-creamy dressing." (and hey, I'll also save money!)). These implementation intentions, which I'll call "programs" work best for "When (trigger) happens I will perform (action(s))." Once you get the hang of doing it with simpler programs, you can find very powerful ways to use this simplistic goal-achieving method.

Firstly, one needs an air of experimentation about it. A goal or program that is percieved as an experiment or learning experience is less threatening and more likely to be realized. This is called "Framing." Setting the overall mood in the correct frame is important. Until you're really good at this method, it should never be used for anything terribly important, or with a huge emotional consequence.


The trigger is the "when" portion of the program. One needs to be quite specific about the trigger. "When Joe walks into the apartment, I'm going to yell 'Surprise!' and hand him the ring." is specific enough. It works best of all if you can project (visualize, hear, sense) the trigger happening in your mind when you create the program. Triggers can be emotions, if you can really *feel* the emotion when creating the program "When I feel angry" works. It is best, however, to start off with concrete external triggers, such as "When I sit down at my computer" which will work whenever you sit down at YOUR computer, since that's what you're likely to visualize. It might not work if you sit at someone else's computer.

I had one that was "When I see the clock in the 9 am range, I will take my birth control pill." -- it worked really well for a few months until we changed our routine a couple times and weren't at the computer by 10am! -- Crisses

In other words, until you have a good bit of practice at creating programs, make sure the trigger is appropriate and the goal is not terribly important. Later you can use it for nearly anything -- it can certainly be better than just forgetting to do something. However, if you normally set an external alarm, you should still set the alarm.


The program actions should be positive; don't make an action to *not* do something...

I will often make a program that says "When x happens, I will become sufficiently self-aware to remember that I don't want to do y." (the imagery makes more sense than the English) -- the outcome of the program is a positive action -- remembering -- not a negative one as in not-doing. It has additional benefits of bringing me back into the present if my mind has wandered away somewhere, and of allowing me to be flexible rather than stuck performing an action when it's no longer appropriate before I consciously think about it. This method of directing my mind to what's going on around me or inside of me is a definite plus when working with triggers or self-work. However, when used in that way, this is always an experiment in learning -- usually I misplace the program trigger as I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that triggers PTSD reactions until I program something that competes with the reaction, so I can catch the reaction before it blows out of proportion. It's hard work, but it's kinda fun. -- The Crisses


The program itself needs to be strong, challenging and specific. Not a "try my best" but an "I will do". That's how it's most effective. You have to be able to immediately judge success or failure so that you can go tinker with the program or let it go. Something you can easily self-monitor, that's definitely within your control.

At first, make sure the program is short-term. Eventually you can use implementation intention techniques to build habits and reinforce the individual programs to become more-or-less permanent (habits), but at first you want something that's going to happen within the next few days or hours. You won't know it works unless it's tested, and you want to be able to clearly see it work, so that it's encouraging, and so you learn from the experience of setting short term simple programs so you have confidence when setting longer term more complicated programs. Start small, easy and quick, work your way up.

When someone says "Remind me later to do y." I set myself an implementation intention. Usually it happens when I'm out of the house, away from the computers, etc. so I program "When we walk into the house, I will remember to remind them of y." This usually works pretty well. This also starts to show how implementation intentions can work for multiples, in the long haul. Even remembering to take the pill every day for several months was a big deal for me. -- The Crisses

One interesting thing is that using this method of creating responses to triggers becomes automatic behaviors even for singletons. As multiples, we're generally used to automated behavior. We don't *choose* to abreact or often don't choose to switch. Somewhere in our head we've set up automatic behaviors, similar to the implementation intentions, and when something happens the response is automatic.

Setting Programs

You can set an implementation intention by simply mindfully visualizing the intention's trigger-thus-response, and then releasing it. However, rehersing it, or repeating the setting procedure is thought to probably strengthen the reaction.

Implementation Intention Deprogramming

The studies have found that implementation intentions are easily deprogrammable: one can simply release the intention and the trigger->action is gone within about 24 hours.

I find that it's very easy to make and release implementation intentions. I can reprogram them on-the-fly, debug them, redirect them, or even release them, in very short order. I wish all my triggers were that easy to deprogram *grins* -- The Crisses


  • One has an unspecified goal as in "I want to lose weight."
  • One chooses something specific to do about it: "I ought to exercise."
  • One has to then choose an implementation intention or program: something specific, immediate, outwardly triggered and inwardly implemented. "Every day when I get up from bed, I will get up, and I will slowly stretch for 10 minutes, then I will get on the treadmill."
  • This is then visualized in an emphatic manner inside one's head.
  • One looks on it as an experiment of "I wonder if I'll remember"
  • If you forget, you adjust things and try again.

There is a definite knack to it. Please leave questions on the page if there are problems understanding it.

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