So, in 2015 we’re all going to go to go to the gym more regularly, eat better, earn more, and read twice as many books, right? Wrong - for the majority of us anyway. If you want a good indication for what you’ll be doing in 2015, your best bet is to look at what you did in 2014.
Studies have shown that good intentions alone will only prompt a change in behaviour 20 to 30 percent of the time. In the vast majority of cases, something a little more concrete is going to have to come into play if you want to make a meaningful change to your habits.
So, surprise, surprise, it takes a whole lot more effort to stick to your new year’s resolutions than just writing them down in a fancy list. And even more discouraging - research has shown that the better we feel about our new year’s resolutions and our ability to stick with them, the less likely we actually will.
But, as Stephen J. Meyer writes at Forbes, it’s not hopeless:
"I’d be a hardened pessimist if not for one thing – there’s a magic bullet that can bridge the gap between goal intentions and goal accomplishment. It’s what behavioural psychologists call “implementation intentions.” Ugly phrase, I know. But it could be the difference between achieving your goals in 2015 and failing miserably.”
So what exactly is this “implementation intentions” concept? Back in 2002, researchers in the UK gathered together a group of volunteers who had set themselves the goal of taking up regular exercising. The volunteers were split into three groups.
The first group, called the "motivational intervention group”, was given educational materials showing that exercise does amazing things for your cardio-vascular health. The second group was asked to plan and write down their “implementation intentions” - for example, exactly where, when, what, they were going to do for exercise, and how frequently, and for how long, each session. The control group was left to their own with no help from the researchers.
Amazingly, 91 percent of Group 2, who actually thought about and wrote down all the details of their plan, ended up exercising. According to Meyer, just 29 percent of the control group and 39 percent of the group who learned extensively about the benefits of exercise ended up actually doing it.
"Twenty-five per cent of those in the control group and 23 percent of the motivational intervention group reported not having got around to their intended exercise,” the team wrote in the British Journal of Health Psychology. "None of the implementation intention group reported this. Participants who did not make implementation intentions may not have recognised opportunities to act and, hence, did not get around to realising their intentions to exercise.”
So what is it about actually writing something down that makes us come good on our promises to ourselves? In his article for Forbes, Meyer points to research by a New York-based psychologist, Peter M. Gollwitzer, who highlighted the importance of “if-then” statements in implementation intentions in a recent article in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
For example, “If it’s 8am on Wednesday, then I will go to the gym to exercise,” is far more effective than just writing “At 8am on Wednesday, I will go to the gym to exercise. "In other words, says Gollwitzer, this is how you should be writing your new year’s resolutions: “If situation Y is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response Z.”
But why would such a simple change in language have any discernible effect on how likely we are to carry them out? Meyer chatted to Gollwitzer and got this response:
“When you have a goal intention – ‘I want to achieve an outcome’ – the ‘I’ is in the middle of it. It’s a top-down regulation of action. It’s me who regulates where I want to go. The if-then plan delegates the control to an external stimulus. It links the situation to the response, so it’s the stimulus, not you, that controls the action. It’s a switch from top-down to bottom-up.”
For whatever reason, research suggests that our brains can get tricked into automatically and subconscously responding to if/then statements. "They effectively trick our brains,” says Meyer. "You do what you said you were going to do unconsciously, very much like a habit."
So implementation intentions are essentially about fooling ourselves into doing something - you consciously formulate a plan, and then unconsciously execute it. Gollwitzer mentioned a study in which students were asked to write a paper during the Christmas break.
Of the group that wrote down their implementation intentions - when and where they intended to write their paper - two-thirds of them actually did it. Exactly zero students who didn’t write their implementation intentions got around to writing the paper. Apparently similar results can be seen in people trying to lose weight.
And Meyer came up with an ingenious way of putting it into action in his own life. He wrote down that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we would exercise at the gym on the treadmill for 30 minutes. The best bit was he even formulated “if/then” plans for if he thought he wouldn’t make it that long: “If I get to the point where I want to quit, then I will focus intently on my audiobook and tune out the pain and fatigue I’m feeling.”
And it worked! It’s only a week, he says, but there’s something to this idea. So here’s my first new year’s resolution - “If it’s 6pm on Thursday, then I am going to go to the pub and read a book.” Bring on 2015.