Improve Your Habit Success by 91% With An “Implementation Intention”

As our biggest critics, we tend to blame our lack of motivation, flexibility, discipline, or any range of things on why we may have failed at a habit in the past but really, it is usually a lack of understanding the mechanics of starting a new habit.

With the right tools, it is much easier to start and continue with a habit, as long as you use an “Implementation Intention”.

What is an implementation intention?

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard some motivational talks about working hard, never giving up, and pushing through the discomfort. While these are all helpful and offer a temporary boost of motivation, what has a longer-lasting impact is in the most simple terms, an implementation intention, which is a self-regulatory strategy to assist the follow-through of a goal in concrete terms. 

It requires you to make a plan of action by filling out one sentence:

“If X happens, I will (Behavior) at (Time) in (Location)”.

For example:

“If (my reminder goes off), I will (Meditate) at  (8:00 AM every day) in my (living room on my meditation pillow)”

Initially pioneered in 1993 in Germany by Peter Gollwitzer, implementation intentions have been refined and studied with definitive proof of effectiveness. It was found in 2002 by a British Journal of Health Psychology study, that participants who were asked to set implementation intentions had a 91% success rate in starting and continuing a habit. This was part of a 3 group study where the other two groups were asked to track progress and read about the benefits of successfully enacting their habits. Despite being more aware of the health benefits, a successful adaptation of the habit was only found in 35-38% of participants. 

How to Set an Implementation Intention?

For anything to become a habit, it has to involve elements of automaticity – the ability to perform something without having to think of every single detail. Implementation intentions work on this principle helping you to decide the details ahead of time and simply carry out the action at the time.

The previous intention statement may seem extremely simple but grasping the two main components is important:

  • Identify one achievable action that you are going to take in pursuit of your goal at a specific time in a specific place.
  • Set intentions cognizant of potential obstacles to the action, time or place. 

To offer an example, let’s say your overall goal is to run 10km regularly but right now it isn’t a realistic place to start. Perhaps you can go out to run for 15 minutes and pick it up from there. You look at your weekly schedule and see that Tuesday evening at 6pm is free and that you can set off from home around your neighborhood. Set a reminder or alarm in a convenient place that will cue your habit so once Tuesday at 6pm rolls around, you are lacing up your shoes ready to go. 

Implementation intention:

“I will run for 15 minutes at 6pm, Tuesday around my neighborhood”.

In ongoing goals it helps to make it more continuous:

“If it is 6pm on Tuesday, I will go for a run around the neighborhood.”

Why use an Implementation Intention?

One of the few commonalities across human psychology is our ability to procrastinate. Almost everyone has, at some point, perfected the art of getting distracted or disillusioned with their ideas. It is often this same ailment that dampens our motivation to start something new. We are put off by the discomfort of new things, the effort required and commitment needed to be successful.

In studying the start of habit creation, motivation intentions (desiring the benefits associated with a habit) are fantastic for ideation but are less impactful on success. Implementation intentions make starting out an inviting, tangible prospect and with attainable success. It offers you the ability to control your success in a format that doesn’t dissuade. 

Where else are Implementation Intentions used?

The idea of “just getting started” when it comes to resolutions, habits and goals is a great use of the implementation intention but not the sole purpose. It actually factors into many more areas making decisions and actions easier.

Addressing Your Fears

You might not believe it but implementation intentions have actually been shown to reduce fears. In 2009, Gollwitzer and his team studied the self-regulation of emotional responses and reported that the group who stated “If I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed” were more measured in their encounters with spiders. The group showed less physical and emotional reactions despite being provided with the same stimuli as others. 


Be it a room, a dresser or perhaps even your garage, you have likely been harboring the desire to clear out old clothes and items you no longer need. Setting an implementation intention for a specific day that you know you will have free helps to automate the starting action. 

Booking Appointments

Have you been deliberating over going to the dentist, visiting the doctor or having contractors over to your house? The decision to actively book the appointment can be frictionless with the right intention. 


All over North American we have been voting on important changes. Most people will have set a time, day and location for having their voices heard. If you keep meaning to get around to casting a vote, setting an implementation intention might be exactly what is needed. 

When are Implementation Intentions Less Effective?

The basis of an implementation intention works on the “If-then” plan. “If I see a spider, I will stay calm” or “If it is 6pm on Tuesday, I will go for a run”. The hope is to ingrain an automated response that doesn’t require you to think too much. However, where this tends to struggle is when the response is not the same every time or something changes. This usually occurs with a more complex goal. 

For example, “If I see a spider, I will stay calm”. This intention has improved responses but what if a spider happens to land on your clothing or perhaps on your friend or family member? The calculated intention will most often be overpowered by self-efficacy or instinctual reactions. 

Of course, this does not diminish the importance of implementation intentions but where you cannot enact the same response every time to the “If”, you might find it less useful. 


Implementation intentions are designed to give you control. They assist you in creating the time and space to carry out the steps to achieving your habits. Naturally, they need to be supplemented by actions and determination but they give you the power to start out on the path to success. 

The next time you find yourself procrastinating or really sluggish to get started on anything, give it a try. Take a piece of paper and write out your algorithm:

“If (Event) happens, I will do (Action) at (Time) in (Location)”.

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani