Kinhost dot Org

Implementation Intentions

This information is based on, or at least heavily backed by, the research of Peter M. Gollwitzer 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


This is a proven method for creating positive (desirable) responses to events in advance so you can work towards goals, based on research delving into how to make more effective plans to achieve goals.

Basic Implementation Intention

When <sensory stimulus> happens…I will <tangible response>.

There are ways to break down larger goals -- broad ideas of things we'd like to do ("I'd like to be more tidy."). And there's the methods in which we will achieve the goals (intentions, such as "I'm going to put my soiled laundry in the hamper every day.").

Implementation intentions are exceptionally specific responses we plan in response to a specific sensory stimulus ("When I take off an article of clothing, I'm going to drop it in the laundry bin.").

These implementation intentions, are something like self-made mental programs that work best for "When (sensory event) happens I will perform (action(s))."

Once you get the hang of creating simple implementation intentions, you can find very powerful ways to use this simplistic goal-achieving method, including building better habits.

Firstly, one needs an air of experimentation about this. It shouldn't be a big deal item to start with: try it out as an experiment or learning experience until you have confidence in this working. This is called "Framing." Setting the overall mood in a calm frame is important. Once you're really good at this method, it can be used for things that are more important or have emotional consequences.

Prompt: Sensory Stimulus

The prompt is the "when" portion of the program. One needs to be quite specific about the prompt. "When Joe walks into the apartment, I'm going to yell 'Surprise!' and hand him the ring." is specific enough.

However, it's not about the words. The part of the brain being used doesn't understand words, really. The words are only a start. These intentions work best if you can project (visualize, hear, sense) the prompt happening in your mind when you create the program. Prompts can be emotions, if you can really *feel* the emotion when creating the program: "When I feel angry" works if you picture or sense what it feels like when you get angry.

Your first prompts

In experiments, they found that beginners start off best with concrete external prompts, 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 meds." -- it worked really well for a few months until we changed our routine a couple times and weren't at the computer by 10am! Oops. -- Crisses

In other words, until you have a good bit of practice at creating programs, make sure the prompt 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 responses or 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 or response -- 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 PTSD triggers or doing self-work. However, when used in that way, this is always an experiment in learning -- usually I misplace the program prompt as I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that triggers a specific PTSD reaction until I create a prompt that competes with the PTSD reaction, so I can catch the reaction before it blows out of proportion. It's hard work, but it's kinda fun. -- The Crisses

Implementation Intention Programs

The program itself needs to be strong, challenging and specific. Come at it with an "I will do" attitude. "Try my best" won't take hold in your brain; this is a set & forget method, there's no "trying" going on, either the implementation intention is set or it's not set.

Same for when the prompt happens: you can immediately detect success or failure so that you can tinker with the program or let it go. Create things you can easily self-monitor, that are definitely within your control.

At first, make short-term programs. 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

Over time you can use implementation intention techniques to build habits by reinforcing the individual programs to become more-or-less permanent (habits).

One interesting thing is that using this method of creating responses to prompts becomes automatic behaviors even for singletons. As multiples, we're generally used to automated behavior. We don't *choose* to get triggered, 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 prompt-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 prompt->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.-- The Crisses


  • One has an unspecified goal as in "I want to be more tidy."
  • One chooses something specific to do about it: "I ought to put all my soiled laundry in the hamper."
  • One has to then choose an implementation intention or program: something specific, immediate, outwardly prompted and inwardly implemented. "Every day when I go to bed, and I get changed, I will put each item of clothes in the laundry hamper."
  • 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.

Leave a comment

Subject: Name (required)
Email (will be private) (required)

Enter code: Captcha