Life Hack: Implementation Intentions

I’ve been reading a book for a campus reading group (The Spark of Learning, by Sarah Rose Cavanagh). It’s got a lot of useful information on how to be a better teacher, and it’s also had a few concepts that really resonated with me. They’ve put into words concepts I didn’t really know already had terms applied to them, if that makes sense. One such concept is implementation intentions.

Basically, these boil down to if-then-plans that you make in order to get things done. For example, growing up, I always had the if-then-plan of “If I come home from school, then I will complete all my homework first thing.” These days, I’ve got, “If I come home from work hungry, then I will have a small cup of granola.”

These sound like absolute no-brainers. Like, of course I’m going to eat something. I’m hungry. But it’s more about deciding what I will eat and how much I will eat, so that I ensure I don’t eat too much. If I don’t have that specific plan, then I come home, I’m hungry, and in the moment, I make a decision about what I’m going to eat. That might end up being three Halloween cookies. It hadn’t been my intent to eat those cookies, but I didn’t have an alternative plan in place, and so that’s what I end up doing.

So what you end up doing is making decisions ahead of time, when you can actually think clearly about what would be the best choice, and then when the situation arises, you already know what you’re going to do. Are they the same as just regular old goals? Not quite. My overarching goal might be “I want to write a novel.” My daily goal might be “I want to write 1,000 words each day.” But that’s still just a general desire. If I then add “If I come home and haven’t written 1,000 words, then I will sit down in a chair and not get up until those 1,000 words are finished,” then I have a real plan for completing my goal. I can add onto that “If I am struggling to write normal prose, then I will write about what I want to write about or what I’m struggling with, and that will count toward my 1,000 words.”

I’ve written 20 novels with this basic approach (refined over the years).

I’ve also successfully lost weight with it, when I can stick to my guns. (The biggest weakness to these implementation intentions, personally, is what happens if I don’t actually follow through on them. In that case, I end up doing exactly what I didn’t want to do, usually. That gets me in trouble.)

The bottom line is that if you’re trying to figure out how to get something done in your life, then come up with a very specific if-then-plan. Almost like a computer program, really. You make your mind up ahead of time about what you’re going to do, and then you just stick to the plan. Give it a shot. It might work well for you.

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