This simple brain hack will make achieving your goals much easier
- A technique psychologists call “implementation intention” can help you stick to your goals.
- Motivation is not always enough – “predetermined goal-directed behavior” keeps you focused longer.
- People are more likely to achieve their goals if they train their brains to use “if-then” statements.
As entrepreneurs, most of us are goal-driven, and we’ve learned how to set clear, juicy goals and then break them down into game plans for smaller projects and tasks. The challenge comes when it’s time for you and your team to actually follow through on those game plans.
After the excitement of setting that wonderful goal, comes the day-to-day work which is often not so exciting. So how do you keep yourself and your team moving forward? How can you stay on track and consistently reach your daily, weekly and quarterly goals?
One of the answers lies in the simple brain hack that psychologists call “implementation intention”.
What the research shows
Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at NYU, first coined the term in the 1990s. He realized that many people set goals, but not many achieved them because they did not take the action they needed to take. Dr. Gollwitzer showed that the difference was not just motivation—as some people were highly motivated and still didn’t do what they needed to do—but people were much more likely to achieve their goals by figuring out “predetermined goal-directed behaviors” and turn them into habits.
Instead of just coming up with a strategy to achieve a goal and then breaking it down into tasks, Dr. Gollwitzer found that people were more likely to succeed if they trained their brains to choose to do the things they needed to do using “if-then” statements (you can also use “when-then” statements).
He and his colleagues ran over 400 studies with all kinds of goals: stop smoking, vote, eat healthy, exercise and even use condoms. All the studies showed that implementation intentions made a huge difference in the results people got.
Reach your goal using “when-then”
How does it work? For example, let’s say you want to grow your business and getting lots of 5-star testimonials will help. So you decide to get 100 testimonials this quarter (about eight per week), and you get them by calling 20 past customers per week, just four each day.
Sounds easy, right? But this type of project easily gets lost in the shuffle. You mean to do it; you know it’s important, but other things that seem more urgent come up. In the end, you may even forget about getting these certificates altogether.
With implementation intention, you start with the statement: “When ___, then I will ___.” You not only say what to do, but also give it a specific time and place. In this case, you might say, “When I get to the office, and before I even look at my emails, I’m going to call four past clients to get testimonials.” This tells your brain exactly when to be ready to call. It sets up your energy and focus. By doing it over and over again, your brain is automatically triggered to sit down and make a call as soon as you walk into the office.
James Clear talks about this in his book “Atomic Habits”. He points out that setting an implementation intention prevents you from deciding whether to do something every single time. You don’t have to be super motivated that day, and you don’t have to use your willpower to make yourself do it. You just do it because after a while it would feel weird not to, just like not brushing your teeth before bed would feel weird.
Overcome Obstacles Using “If-Then”
Implementation intent also helps you plan ahead for obstacles you may encounter and help you through them. Say you know your morning calls are often interrupted by team members who need your input. You know something like this is going to happen, so before it happens, you figure out, “If ___ then I will ___.”
“If I’m interrupted, I’ll ask the person (unless they’re bleeding to death) to give me 15-20 minutes.” Or maybe you decide, “If I’m interrupted in the morning, I’ll close the door and eat lunch at my desk to make a call.” The strategy you use to deal with the obstacle is up to you. The point is, you’ve already figured it out and know exactly how to stay on track despite everything that tries to get in your way.
Athletes have been using this for years. Marathon runners know they will run into “the wall” at about 18 to 20 miles. Instead of being blindsided, they figure out ways to deal with it before the race. They want to slow down and take some sports gel. They will pay attention to the cheering crowd or focus on a particular mantra. They don’t try to figure out how to deal with the wall when it happens. They have a plan, so it doesn’t throw them off target.
When I started coaching, I realized that many of my students hit a wall after three months. They learned and implemented different marketing strategies – but these strategies take some time, so they didn’t see any results yet. We learned to warn them in advance. “Hey, you might not see results for 4-5 months. That doesn’t mean you’re not on track. If you put in the work, the results will come soon.”
Then we help them with “if-then” strategies. “If you’re feeling stuck or discouraged, call during office hours.” An implementation intention is a brain-hack tool that helps you take the steps you need to take, whether you feel motivated or not. You set the implementation intention by saying what you’re going to do and exactly when you’re going to do it, and you plan in advance how you’re going to deal with obstacles to stay on track.
James Clear wrote: “Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated. It’s the ability to keep going when the work isn’t exciting that makes the difference.”