Harry Cresswell

Sticking with your commitments

How do you increase your chances of sticking with the things you say you’ll do? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot.

We all have things we want to achieve, but staying committed and making progress towards those things can be difficult. It requires dedication – showing up day after day, investing time and energy, and continually chipping away – which isn’t exactly easy.

But you can make it easier by creating a strategy. A simple plan of action to help you stay committed and achieve your goals.

I find that whenever I lean on a strategy or systematic process in my work, everything gets a whole lot easier. By planning your actions, you remove barriers preventing progress and things become autonomous. It’s no different for your long-term commitments.

Sticking with the things you say you’ll do is actually down to having a good strategy. And one I’ve started to use with more conscious attention is called implementation intentions.

Implementation Intentions #

In research conducted by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer on goal striving, results showed that by assigning specific situational cues to a goal – a strategy know as ”implementation intentions” – you enhance the rate of goal attainment.

Implementation intentions uses something called the ”goal-specificity effect”, which shows that a person will perform better when set goals are challenging and specific, compared to those that are challenging but vague.

In other words, you’re more likely to act on your intentions, if you form a concrete plan involving specific situational cues. These situational cues define the when, where, and how you plan to act on your intentions.

Peter Gollwitzer calls this an “if-then plan”; where you select an “if” cue, that’s linked to a “then” response.

With this idea in mind, let’s look at a few examples.

Implementation intentions in action #

Say your goal is to write a book. To achieve your goal you might decide to build a daily writing habit. Makes sense. It’s less intimidating to focus on a regular commitment, than fixating on an end goal, which feels impossible to achieve.

To build your daily writing habit, you might employ an “if-then plan,” to increase your changes of staying committed and achieving your goal.

Your ”if-then plan” may look something like this:

If the time is 6 am, then I will sit down to write in the study.

In this case, 6 am is the cue, which prompts a response – sitting down to write in the study.

In reality this is probably over simplified. If the time is 6 am then your alarm would likely go off, then you would wake up, then sit down to write. But that’s beside the point, you get the general idea.

Let’s take a look at another example.

This time, lets say your goal is to run a marathon. To help you schedule your training and stay committed, again, you might use an ”if-then plan”.

If the time is 8 am, then I will put on my running gear and go for a run outside.

By defining the when, where, and how you want to act on your goal intentions, you affirm a concrete strategy to make your goals more attainable and your behaviour easier to stick with.

Now let’s look at a slightly different formula for applying implementation intentions.

A simple formula for implementation intentions #

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that an implementation intention is ”a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. That is, how you intend to implement a particular habit.”

James’ formula for creating implementation intentions makes use of two of the most common cues that help trigger a habit; time and location.

The formula looks like this:

I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

This is a simple, easy to remember way of expressing our “if-then plan”. So let’s revisit our previous example for absolute clarity, but this time apply James’ formula instead.

I will write at 6 am in the study.

In this case, write is our chosen behaviour. It defines how we will act. The time 6 am specifies ‘when’ we will act. And the study provides a location. It clarifies ’where’ we will act.

What I like most about James’ formula is that it makes it so simple and clear. It literally spells it out for you and makes your commitment feel so easy to accomplish.

But ‘feeling easy’ isn’t exactly a great explanation for why implementation intentions work. So now, let’s put these fomulas to one side, and talk about at what make this strategy such a powerful tool for goal attainment.

Why implementation intentions work #

By defining a concrete plan of when, where, and how to act, you improve your mental representation of a situation, making it highly active and accessible.

In other words, by using cues to trigger your actions, you improve your perception, attention and memory concerning the situation. You create a strong associative link between a cue and the response, making your behaviour more likely to occur in the given situation.

This associative link helps make your behaviour automatic and you begin to perform your actions with very little conscious effort. Your behaviour becomes subconscious, making it easier to show up and practice often.

Without the need for decision making about your next actions, you’re left with plenty of energy for what really matters.

Keep in mind #

Goal attainment is down to having a good strategy.

Creating situational cues – for when and where you will act – improves your chances of sticking with your commitments and reaching your goals.

Assigning specific cues to a chosen behaviour, creates clarity in your mind and a concrete plan of action. This is a strategy know as implementation intentions.

Having a concrete plan for your commitments makes your decisions more autonomous. You spend less time thinking about your actions or fixating on the end goal, and more time being productive. You make things easy.

Further reading #

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Braintactics is a weekly roundup of articles, tools and tips for product designers and front-end developers. I send it every Friday morning.