Make it automatic!

I wish the title was related to a way I’ve found to make my blogs automatic but when I am on (a looong) vacation there’s still an inevitable gap. Rather, the title is about how to make our action-taking automatic in order to achieve our goals.

Most of us don’t have a problem in setting goals – you’ve probably heard of at least one version of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic, Timely). What most of us struggle with is the following up part. It is one of the themes that come up quite often in both coaching sessions with clients and casual conversations with friends.

Latest was shared by a friend over the weekend as we cruised in the canals of Amsterdam. He mentioned how much he loves playing the trombone and knows how important to have regular rehearsals , but somehow he can not bring himself to do that. It is quite puzzling for him – why fail to do something that not only he WANTS to do but also ENJOYS to do. I am sure many people can relate to him – I for one always wonder why I don’t go dancing often even though I know that is one of the things I enjoy the most!

So what is one to do to follow up on his goals?

Part of the answer lies in exercising the “self-control” or “willpower” muscle I wrote about a few times before (e.g.,blog post dated 2009-06-23). Another technique I would like to mention this time is called “Implementation Intention”.

This framework was developed by  Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at NYU, who is a leading researcher in the area of goal pursuit and motivation. His frameworks outlines the whole process from selecting appropriate goals to goal attainment. I would like to focus on the part where he talks about setting implementation intentions that increase the likelihood of taking successful action to reach our goals. Here are the 5 steps to do that:

Step 1: Set your GOAL INTENTIONS (e.g., “I intend to do regular rehearsals”, “I intend to exercise regularly”)

Step 2: Set a specific plan about HOW, WHEN & WHERE you will take action. (e.g., “practicing every Wednesday and Saturday at home for an hour”, “going running Tuesday and Thursday mornings for 30 minutes and going to the gym every Saturday for 1 hour”).

Step 3: Translate the above plans into implementation intentions in IF – THEN form.  (e.g., “IF it is Wednesday, THEN I will practice for 1 hour”, “IF it is Tuesday morning, THEN I will run for 30 minutes”)

Step 4: Make a list of possible distractions you might face along the way (e.g., feeling tired, limited time, TV, other interesting things)

Step 5: Set specific implementation intentions in the form of IF – THEN statements about the actions you’ll take when you encounter these distractions (e.g., “IF I feel tired, THEN I will rest for 15 minutes before my practice”, “IF there is something interesting on TV, THEN I will ignore it (the TV program)”)

The effectiveness of implementation intentions lies in the IF – THEN format. When you encounter the distraction you’ll take the action you’ve decided on without further thought – you almost make it AUTOMATIC! The same applies to goal-directed behavior – the day of the week will act as a trigger to take the subsequent action.

You might be thinking that this all sounds too simple and wondering why IF – THEN statements should make a difference. With these statements what you are doing is mentally linking an anticipated critical situation (e.g., day of the week or being distracted by TV) with an effective goal-directed response. Once “your system” detects the critical situation (and most of the time this might happen even without your conscious awareness) it automatically initiates the stored action linked to that.

This process nicely overcomes a few potential obstacles that you might face otherwise:

  • difficulty in getting started (outlining how, where & when and automating action help with this)
  • reflecting anew on the desirability of goal intention (automating action bypasses this)
  • staying on track (overseeing distractions and having actions ready to deal with them help with staying on track)

Studies have shown that implementation intentions make goal attainment more probable. When combined with setting appropriate goals and a well-exercised willpower/self control muscle you are more likely to achieve your goals by using these tools. So say it: IF I want to achieve my goals THEN I will use implementation intentions!

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