Lifestyle Focus on identifying cues that will trigger the desired action, writes Amantha Imber.

Can you recall the last time you set a goal?

Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution, a plan to shed some kilos or to escape the hypnotic grip of social media.

If you’re a member of the mere mortal club like I am, it’s quite likely that you never achieved all those goals, despite the best of intentions.

A meta-analysis conducted by Thomas Webb and Paschal Sheeran from the University of Manchester analysed 47 studies on the relationship between goal intention and goal achievement.

They found a significant gap between intending to do something and actually achieving it.

A big reason for this gap is it can be hard to start or find the right opportunity to act.

When hitting a goal involves giving up something you love, such as the daily block of chocolate during your 3pm work slump, and replacing it with something less desirable – and let’s face it, most food is less desirable than chocolate – motivation can be hard to find.

The best of intentions often ends up with us failing to change our behaviour.

Implementation intentions

Psychologists have found that one of the most effective ways to bridge the gap between intentions and behaviour is by having a plan, or an ‘‘implementation intention’’.

Implementation intentions connect opportunities to act with a particular behavioural or cognitive response. In other words, an action is linked to a situation, so the desired behaviour becomes natural or automatic.

A goal is simply ‘I will achieve X’, whereas an implementation intention identifies the context or situation that will trigger the desired behaviour.

Implementation intentions are typically expressed as ‘‘if-then’’ statements. Some examples:

If I am feeling tempted to skip my workout, I will remind myself of my fitness goals and do the workout.

If I am struggling to finish a report and want to procrastinate by checking social media, I will set a timer for 10 minutes and push through on the report until the timer goes off.

If I come home from work and feel tempted to snack on junk food, I will eat a piece of fruit instead.

If I find myself sitting for more than an hour, I will stand up and take a short walk.

Identifying cues to act

When thinking about the first part of the statement, you need to specify an internal or an external cue.

An internal cue is a sensation or thought, such as feeling stressed. An external cue refers to something happening in your environment, such as opening the pantry and spying chips to snack on, or opening Instagram on your phone.

Cues can be related to good opportunities to act, such as when you are in an environment where it becomes easy to perform the desired behaviour. Alternatively, cues can focus on specific obstacles, such as a couch and a television.

To optimise the effectiveness of your implementation intention, research has found it will be more likely to work if you are as specific as possible with your cue and behaviour. Specify ‘‘eating an apple’’ as opposed to ‘‘eating something healthy’’.

Make sure you will actually encounter the cue. While this may sound obvious, don’t use the cue ‘‘when I get home from work’’ if you work from home most of the week.

And ensure the plan is viable. If your cue is ‘‘arriving home’’ and the behaviour is ‘‘eating fruit’’, make sure you have fruit in the house. Again, this may sound obvious, but ‘‘obvious’’ does not always equal ‘‘applied’’.

Making implementation

intentions work

Write down the behaviour you want to change. For example, you might want to stop sleeping in on the weekend so you can wake up at the same time every morning.

Think about a cue that would present a good opportunity to engage in the behaviour.

Your alarm going off is an ideal cue to change behaviour by getting up immediately rather than reaching for the phone.

Craft your implementation intention as an if-then statement: If my alarm goes off in the morning, I will remind myself of my goal to improve my sleep and get out of bed immediately and go for a walk in the morning sunlight.

Pin your implementation plan somewhere prominent in your home – so you are constantly reminded of it. Even better, pin up the plan where your cue occurs, such as the kitchen, the office, the bedroom.AFR

This article is an edited extract from the book The Health Habit.