Using less plastic, getting up early or going to the gym more often – forming intentions and goals is part of our everyday lives. However, we do not always follow through on those intentions and sometimes fall off track during our goal pursuit. In my last post, I talked about WHY this is the case. In today’s post, I would like to introduce some simple methods that can aid you in the process of following up on your intentions. These tools can be a great help independent of what your intentions are (living greener, studying more, cycling to work every day – you name it), but in the spirit of my blog I give examples that refer to environmental behavior.
In this post, I will talk about the following three tools – if you want to jump sections, please click on the respective heading.
Implementation intentions – “if-then” plans
One of the most researched tools to help people pursue their goals and intentions are implementation intentions, also called “if-then plans”.
How it works? Well, basically you create a plan on how to overcome obstacles and reach your goal by specifying when, where and how you want to act on your intention or goal. THAT’S IT. It might sound too simple to be true, but implementation intentions have been proven to be an effective method for translating intentions into action in numerous studies.
Let’s dive into how this method works. In short, what you need to do is reframe your plans into “if-then” statements. The “IF” stands for a situation, or situational cue, and the “THEN” for your planned response to that situation.
“If situation x arises, then I will perform response y.”
Here are some examples:
- “If I order a drink when I go out with Sarah, I will let the waiter know that I do not want a straw when I order”
- “If I go to the grocery store and have to choose between cheaper vegetables packaged in plastic and more expensive ones without plastic, I will only buy those that are not packaged in plastic.”
Formulate your own implementation intentions
Let`s practice how to formulate implementation intentions step by step. To do so, you can follow these three steps:
- Choose a goal that you would like to accomplish (check out my last post to read up on what makes a “good” intention – concrete, easy, realistic…)
- Think about your goal. How will you achieve your goal? What are possible obstacles that could stop you from reaching your goal? Do you need to remember something? Do you need to prepare for your intention?
- Put everything into an “if-then” statement.
“If ______________ (situation x arises), then I will ____________ (perform response y).”
By formulating if-then plans in this way, you predetermine how you will act in a certain situation that is relevant for your goal. Thereby, you form a mental representation of the opportunities or obstacles that you might encounter, which in turn will help you to identify and seize opportunities to act (remember, this was one of the problems I disucssed in my blog post on why we do not follow through on our intentions). Moreover, if-then plans help to make a behavior more automatic, which is helpful in forming new habits.
Besides implementation intentions, „mental contrasting“ is another powerful tool for behavior change. In mental contrasting, what you need to do is identify a personal goal or intention (e.g. holding two plant-based days a week), imagine the positive desired future outcome of goal attainment (e.g. reducing livestock’s impact on the environment), and identify which personal obstacles currently keep you from reaching the goal (e.g. not knowing how to make plant-based foods tasty).
Mental contrasting works by changing non-conscious motivational and cognitive processes. In specific, by using mental contrasting, a strong implicit mental association between the desired future and obstacles are created. Additionally, strong associations between the obstacle and ways to overcome these are created.
Let’s have a look at how you would go through the process of mental contrasting step-by-step. Please answer the following questions:
- Which goal would you like to set for yourself concerning _________ for the coming weeks? It should be challenging and specific.
- What are positive aspects you associate with realizing your goal? State everything, which is important to you.
- Now, please name the most positive aspect for you personally and write down a key word.
- Imagine the events and experiences you associate with this aspect. What will change for you, if you realize your goal and this best aspect comes true? Please write down your thoughts and imaginations.
- Sometimes goals are not met, even if one has wished for it. Can you imagine something standing in the way of your goal? For everyone other obstacles are of main importance. What could be important obstacles for you personally?
- If several obstacles came to your mind, please name the two most important ones and write down one or two keywords each.
- Imagine the events and experiences you associate with these two obstacles. Please write down your thoughts and imaginations.
Mental contrasting can also be combined with implementation intentions (if-then plans) to be even more effective. Remember, formulating an implementation intentions goes works like this: “If ______________ (situation x arises), then I will ____________ (perform response y).”
- For each of the two obstacles please formulate two implementation intentions (so four in total):
- What can you do to overcome the obstacle? In which situation, when and where?
- What can you do to prevent the obstacle? In which situation, when and where?
Another simple, yet powerful tool to help you stay on track with your goals is monitoring your progress. Here’s why:
- Reminds you of progress & helps to identify the right course of action – tracking your progress can help you to measure your improvement, which is very important to keep you motivated to pursue your goals. Furthermore, in case you get derailed in the process, monitoring your progress signals the necessity to change your course of action to get back on track.
- Focuses your attention – monitoring your progress will repeatedly make you focus your attention on your goals and the behavior you’re trying to change. This way, you keep your intentions and goals at the top of your mind, which will make it less likely that you will simply forget to act or miss opportunities to act.
- The mere-measurement effect – research has shown that by simply measuring people’s intent to engage in a certain behavior, they become more likely to actually do so. For example, one study has shown that students who were asked about their intentions to vote were actually more likely to vote.
How to monitor your progress
Well, here’s where you can get creative and pick a method that suits you the best – after all, you also need to stick to the “monitoring” process. I’ve compiled a list of a few suggestions, but really – be my guest and come up with our own method! Just remember, the idea behind it is to keep yourself accountable and to remind you of your progress! Let’s take a look at a few options.
Write an activity diary – This might be the most straight forward method of them all. Take a notebook or a diary and write down your progress every day or week (depending on your intention). Have you worked towards your goals or even reached your intentions? Why? Why not? What were you struggling with? Making time for self-reflection will help you a great deal in understanding your motivations and strategies on working towards your goals.
Show and tell: keep yourself accountable – This method somewhat builds on the previous one. Instead of reflecting on your goals by yourself, let your friends know about your intentions and the progress you are making to achieve those goals. Do you have a friend who is also trying to work towards some kind of goal? Even better! You can even keep each other accountable and discuss your progress regularly.
Complete a monthly personal review – I must admit, I did not come up with this method, but it made me giggle, so I had to include it. One day, I read a tweet from somebody who talked about how he just completed his “monthly personal review” with himself. Here’s how it works: Pick a certain day each month in order to check in with yourself: how far have I come towards my goals? What have I done to achieve it? What could I do differently? The thing that is important is that you CANNOT reschedule this appointment with yourself! Only if you really have to, you are allowed to MOVE your appointment, but NOT to cancel it! I would especially recommend this method to track your progress regarding goals for which it takes a while to see the effects of behavior change, such as buying less food packaged in plastic. For example, you could check at the end of the month how many garbage bags you have filled with plastic, what kinds of foods you tend to buy in plastic etc.
Use the Seinfeld method – Last but not least, here’s a celebrity approved method for you. Apparently, Seinfeld recommended this method to a stand-up comedian who wanted to practice coming up with good jokes. Seinfeld’s suggestion? Practice every day and mark every completed day with a big X in a big, visible wall calendar. The catch? Try not to break the chain in your calendar, this way you create consistency! Even though this strategy was originally created for creative success, you can easily apply this to environmental behaviors as well – especially for everyday behaviors such as taking your bike to work.
So there you go – two different methods (creating if-then plans and monitoring your progress) to help you work towards your goals. Now all there is left to do is to try it out in real life. Good luck!
Further reading & resources
- Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstätter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(1), 186. [Link]
- Oettingen, G. (2012). Future thought and behaviour change. European review of social psychology, 23(1), 1-63. [Link]
- Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 198–29. [Link]