Tell me this hasn’t happened to you: You decide on a goal and you’re full of enthusiasm for the first week, maybe two. Then you slack off. Finally, months go by and you’ve made no real progress.
When you remember your original goal, you either feel bad and quit, or feel bad and try again—only to experience the same dynamic again and again. But what if I told you two little words could enable you to break out of that cycle?
It’s easy to get distracted and derailed, even when we’re pursuing goals that really matter to us. The problem is that progress takes willpower, and willpower is like a muscle. Flex it a lot, and it wears out. To make progress and achieve our goals we need to give our willpower a break without losing momentum. How?
Give Yourself a Break
I love running today, but that doesn’t mean it came easy. As much as I knew I needed to run, unless the weather outside was amazing I sometimes got stuck. I had to decide each time that running was good for me and helped me reach my fitness goals.
It may seem like a small decision, but willpower researchers know that every decision wears us down. If we make enough decision we can drain our energy low enough that we won’t make the right call, even if we know it’s a good idea. That can kill our goals faster than anything. It’s what kills most New Year’s Resolutions after just a few weeks.
The solution is to remove the decision. Instead of choosing to run in the moment, I started laying out my running gear in advance. I didn’t have to decide—just follow the decision I had already made the night before.
Without knowing it, I was creating what goal researchers call an “implementation intention.” It’s easiest to think of an implementation intention as a simple if/then statement we create as a pre-response. That way, whatever obstacle we face, we’ve already decided how to get past it.
Those are the magic words: if and then.
Planning to Win
Let’s say your goal is to leave the office every day at 5 p.m. on the nose to be with your family. But you have phone calls, coworkers coming to talk, last-minute meetings, and more. Every new request requires you to decide what matters more: leaving, or the urgent requests that keep coming up. It wears down you resolve, and suddenly you’re now walking out the door at 5:45.
To get past these obstacles, you could create a series of implementation intentions designed to address all the things that might keep you late. Here are just four:
- If I get a phone call after 4:45 p.m., I will let it go to voicemail.
- If a colleague sees me getting ready to leave and wants to talk, I will let them know that I’m happy to do so tomorrow but I’m expected home now.
- If I get a meeting request for 4 p.m., I will let the organizer know that I need to exit five minutes before the top of the hour and prepare my things for departure before the meeting.
- If I have email to answer before the end of the day, I will do so by 4:30 p.m. and won’t check email again after 4:45.
Whatever your goal, the trick is to simply think through the contingencies and obstacles that will prevent you from achieving it. Once you’ve thought through the most likely hangups, you can pre-respond so you know what to do the second they occur.
Think about one goal that matters to you right now. What hinders your progress? Create a list of implementation intentions. Like the examples above put these in the first person, and review them often.
This sort of planning smooths out the friction we experience trying to maintain momentum and gives us a way to overcome obstacles. Once you’ve used them a few times, they’ll become second nature. I don’t have to remind myself to go running any longer. It’s just what I do.
It might take a little imagination to think through the potential obstacles to your goals, but it’s worth it. According to researchers Peter M. Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen, in almost a hundred studies with more than 8,000 total participants, implementation intentions like these had a significant impact on helping people maintain momentum and reach their goals.
We all know we’re going to face obstacles. But if we plan ahead, we have a better shot at overcoming them and reaching our destinations. And all it takes is two little words to get started.
Question: What goals are you struggling with right now? Can you create some implementation intentions to get the ball moving again? You can leave a comment by clicking here.