In his bestselling book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, author James Clear writes about a powerful tool called the implementation-intention tool, which is a great tool for achieving and starting new habits. He writes:
IN 2001, RESEARCHERS in Great Britain began working with 248 people to build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. The subjects were divided into three groups.
- The first group was the control group. They were simply asked to track how often they exercised.
- The second group was the “motivation” group. They were asked not only to track their workouts but also to read some material on the benefits of exercise. The researchers also explained to the group how exercise could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and improve heart health.
- The third group received the same presentation as the second group, which ensured that they had equal levels of motivation. However, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. Specifically, each member of the third group completed the following sentence:
“During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”
In the first and second groups, 35 to 38 percent of people exercised at least once per week. (Interestingly, the motivational presentation given to the second group seemed to have no meaningful impact on behavior.) But 91 percent of the third group exercised at least once per week—more than double the normal rate.
The Implementation Intention
The sentence filled out by the third group is what researchers refer to as an implementation intention, which is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.
The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms—the feel of your phone buzzing in your pocket, the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the sound of ambulance sirens—but the two most common cues are time and location. Implementation intentions leverage both of these cues.
Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is:
Hundreds of studies have shown that implementation intentions are effective for sticking to our goals, whether it’s writing down the exact time and date of when you will get a flu shot or recording the time of your colonoscopy appointment. They increase the odds that people will stick with habits like recycling, studying, going to sleep early, and stopping smoking.
Too many people try to change their habits without these basic details figured out. We tell ourselves, “I’m going to eat healthier” or “I’m going to write more,” but we never say when and where these habits are going to happen. We leave it up to chance and hope that we will “just remember to do it” or feel motivated at the right time. An implementation intention sweeps away foggy notions like “I want to work out more” or “I want to be more productive” or “I should vote” and transforms them into a concrete plan of action.
Implementation Intention – A Personal Experience
One of the most transformative changes that I have made in the past two years is my exercise routine. At the core of my progress is using the implementation-intention tool consistently. As James Clear noted, “Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity”. I totally agree with Clear, what most of us lack is not motivation but a clear sense of what we are trying to achieve or become. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is a great dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat that sums up the need to have clarity in whatever one wants to do or where you are heading.
Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “—so long as I get somewhere,”
Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
One of the first things I do, the moment I wake up is to meditate. I have not missed a day of 15-20 minutes of meditation since December 27, 2021, and it is one of the most impactful tasks that I perform on a daily basis. Meditating daily at the same time I intended on my implementation-intention plan has made all the difference. My meditation routine has helped me navigate the most trying times in the past couple of months and I am learning to become more mindful and radically accept everything life brings towards my path.
Other ways that I use the implementation intention tool include:
- Daily Writing Exercise: I will write an article/blog post immediately, I finish meditating daily.
- French Podcast: I will listen to an hour of French podcasts while shooting basketball every morning in the gym.
- Audiobook Listening: I will listen to an hour of a non-fiction audiobook while lifting weights in my morning exercise routine.
- French Listening and Music: I will listen to a French audio program and some music during my swimming session.
- Kindle Reading: I will read a book from my Kindle during buffer time(s) such as when I am on public transportation transit or waiting for a service.
The above strategy of habit stacking my goals together has been game-changing for me and it has made all the difference in my goal setting and follow through. Because of the implementation-intention tool and the habit-stacking strategy, I have been able to achieve most of my fitness and personal development goals such as:
- In 2023, I was able to Run a full marathon in 9 of the 10 Canadian Provinces: Toronto, Ontario, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Calgary, Alberta, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Regina, Saskatchewan, Quebec City, Quebec, The Royal Victoria Marathon, and The Prince Edward Island Marathon. plus two half-marathons: Mississauga Half Marathon and Beneva de Montreal Half Marathon.
- I reduced my full marathon personal best time from 3 hours 44 minutes to 3 hours 20 minutes time and also reduced my half-marathon time from 1 hour 40 minutes to 1 hour 33 minutes.
- Average 2-3 hours of exercise daily and cross-train across multiple sports (Basketball, swimming, weightlifting, running, pickleball, badminton, and tennis).
- Read multiple books – physical, kindle, and audiobooks. Averaging 2-3 books per week.
I can personally attest to the fact that the implementation-intention tool works and it is by far one of the best tools have come across for starting and following through on a new habit. Executing the implementation-intention tool and habit-stacking your goals can seem daunting in the beginning but with continuous repetition, you will master it and develop a routine in the process.
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.