In his 1999 bestseller, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Robin Sharma tells a story of a group of monks in India who, whenever they have a negative thought, make a treacherous hike to a large waterfall. They stand underneath the pounding, freezing water until the negative thought is "washed away from them."
This may sound a little extreme, and chances are you don't have a waterfall on your block to go stand under anytime you screw something up. But modern psychologists are now figuring out that that the monks may have been onto something.
How do you stay on track to reaching a goal when you’re struggling to stay motivated? One answer that psychologists have hit upon is called "implementation intentions." It's a simple principle, which comes down to knowing ahead of time exactly what you'll do if you veer off course, as well as defining precisely what veering off course means for you.
For instance, when ultramarathon runners set out on a strenuous run, they regularly set parameters around what it'll take for them to quit: "If I completely lose my vision, I’ll stop." Of course, it doesn't have to be as extreme as going temporarily blind or getting pummeled by a powerful waterfall. The point is simply to set a benchmark for failure and an action plan should you hit it.
Often, if you don’t predetermine the conditions in which you’ll stop, you will quit prematurely. According to Jesse Itzler, author of Living with a SEAL, most people stop at about 40% of their actual capacity. This makes sense: When things get difficult, your mind goes into survival mode and you begin craving dopamine hits. That's why we many of us "stress eat" or compulsively check social media in the midst of difficult work.
But the theory behind "implementation intentions" takes it one step further than just having a "quit plan." You also need to establish the "if-then" response you'll have when you encounter tough conditions. Research among children has found that imagining both the obstacles to their goals and their "if-then responses" improved students' grades, attendance, and in-class conduct. And separate studies have found that implementation intentions can strongly and consistently improve time management.
Why? Because planning to act on a goal—even if that goal describes what you do when you fail—actually can actually create a clearer and more accurate cognitive picture about that future situation. That clarity persists until your plan is enacted or your goal achieved. Other research has found that this enhanced mental clarity helps you easily recall a similar past situation and respond more quickly and effectively to the current one. In other words, implementation intentions can improve cue detection when it counts, while minimizing false alarms.
Developing implementation intentions creates a strong mental link between the "if" component and the "then" component. You actually want your "then" response to the critical situation to kick in more or less automatically, should you reach it. That response, in psychological terms, should be initiated immediately, efficiently, and without needing any further conscious resolve. That way, your implementation intention is more than just a roadmap, it's an automated trigger—an external stimulus (a smell, room, person, song, etc.) that sets off a trained reaction. And that means knowing what the circumstances of potential failure look like intimately—even viscerally.
My cousin Jesse was an avid smoker for over a decade, smoking several packs a day. Three years ago, he went cold turkey. Whenever he’s feeling really stressed and craves a cigarette, he tells himself, "If I was a smoker, this is one of those times I would smoke." Then he continues on with whatever he was doing.
An effective implementation intention can be as simple as a mental reminder. Rather than bathe under a stinging cold waterfall, this trigger works for Jesse because it’s very important to him that he no longer self-identifies as a smoker. And that deep commitment has helped Jesse train his brain to automatically remind himself of that the moment he feels tempted to smoke.
Although writing and visualizing the completion of your goal can be helpful, research has found that visualizing the process (the barriers you’ll face and your responses to them) in which you'll achieve your goal can improve your performance and decrease anxiety.
Want to try that right away? Pull out a piece of paper and grab a pen or pencil, and do this:
- Think about your top goal.
- Write it down.
- Give it a timeline, preferably a fairly short one.
- Imagine all the potential obstacles you'll face in achieving that goal.
- Write those obstacles down.
- Now come up with an if-then response you will have to each of those obstacles.
By first envisioning the various shapes failure might take, and then planning your automatic responses to each of those situations, you can start training your brain to put them into action long before you need to.
There are a few important caveats to bear in mind, though. Research has found that if your commitment toward your goal is weak, your if-then response will likely be ineffective. And separate research has found that if your self-efficacy (your belief in your own ability) is low, even implementation intentions probably won’t work well for you. Low self-efficacy limits your ability to keep going when it gets hard.
Other research found that implementation intentions usually don't help people who evaluate their own behaviors based on other people’s or societal standards. In other words, your goals need to be intrinsically motivating, not pegged to something that others find important but you might not.
Finally, specific if-then responses ("If I walk into the kitchen and crave cookies, then . . .") have been found to be more effective than vague ones "Whenever I crave junk food, then . . ."). Just like with visualization and goal-setting, the more specific your failure plan, the better you'll be at instituting it—and, hopefully, at staying on track to ultimately succeed.