Starting a New Habit? Follow This Three-Step Plan

When approaching change, most declare their goal and then charge out blindly into the world, flailing their arms about in a confused mass of temporary motivation. So what's the alternative? How can we make permanent change?
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Imagine a new skydiver clenching her teeth and squeezing her eyes tight while she musters the willpower to launch herself from the plane, only to realize she has no parachute. A silly thought, but this is exactly the way most people go about change. They declare their goal and then charge out blindly into the world, flailing their arms about in a confused mass of temporary motivation.

This is the typical approach to change: to make a declaration and then brace for the hard work ahead. It rarely works.

So what's the alternative? How can we make permanent change? The answer is "implementation intention," and it is the single most important consideration for habit change.

The Power of Intention

Implementation intention, the act of making a specific behavioral plan, solves this problem with three simple questions. "What are you going to do?" "When are you going to do it?" and, "How will you go about it?" By answering these questions, you immediately start to plan, schedule and troubleshoot the entire effort before you even start. And it works big time!

A 2006 review out of the Advances In Experimental Social Psychology journal analyzed 94 studies conducted over a 13-year period with a total of 8,000 participants. The researchers found that intentional planning was a key factor in successful habit change of all types -- from dietary to spending habits. And the effect was not small. This research showed that this simple activity increased the chance of successful change by 50 to 80 percent!

Why Does It Work?

The reason this works so well is pretty straightforward when you think about it. Most people wanting to make a change simply declare their intentions, but rarely get specific about what is required. Asking, "What am I going to do?" helps you get crystal clear about what new behavior is required. This primes the brain to look for opportunities to start this new thing.

However, this alone is not enough. There is a lot going on in that brain of yours and it is easily distracted. By asking, "When am I going to do it?" you are taking the uncertainty out of the equation. Your brain hates uncertainty and will often default to its old behaviors whenever you are in uncharted territory. Giving your brain a cue about when it must be focused is critical in any new change effort.

The most crucial part of any change is practice, and that is what the third question forces you to do. By asking, "How am I going to do it?" your brain automatically tasks itself to predicting possible obstacles, and specifically plots out how to address them. This may be the most powerful -- and overlooked -- aspect of smart habit change.

How to Do It

Are you ready to make a new habit? Take out a sheet of paper (yes, you have to do this part, because writing it down makes it far more tangible and is a great reminder if you need it), and write the first question, "What am I going to do?" at the top. Now answer it, and be as specific as possible. For example, "I am going to the gym four times per week."

Now, write the second question below the first. "When am I going to do it?" Record the answer to this question. Again, be specific. For example, you might write, "I am going to go to the gym at 5:30 p.m., right after work on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings."

Now, write and answer "How am I going to do it?" This question is most critical, so get specific. You might write, "I will pack a gym bag every night and put it next to my briefcase so I don't forget it. I will also make sure I have a small apple or other piece of fruit every day at 4 p.m. so I am not sidetracked by hunger, and have good energy for my workout. When I get to the gym I will do 20 minutes of cardio by doing one minute hard and two minutes slow, and repeating that for the entire 20 minutes. I will then follow that with 20 minutes of weight training. I will do 12 reps each of four exercises in a circuit: squat, chest press, back row, and shoulder press and repeat that for the entire 20 minutes. If the gym is crowded, and a circuit workout is not feasible, I will simply do five minutes straight of each exercise, resting whenever I need to and starting again where I left off. I will stretch my whole body for 20 minutes after my session. It is going to feel great!"

You have just given your brain a crystal-clear road map for success. Now, take this paper and read it over one more time. Fold it up neatly and tuck it into your purse or wallet. Look at it from time to time, or even daily, if needed. You are now primed for change. Here are four final considerations to make it last:

  1. Don't forget the "why." Purpose is the Energizer Bunny of willpower. Include on your paper why this change is so important.

  • Make one intention at a time. A plan with too many moving parts is a plan for failure. The human brain is miserable at multitasking, so make certain it does not have to. Make one change at a time.
  • Be specific. Research from the journal Appetite in 2012 showed that specificity counts. People who combined an intention to "eat more fruits and vegetables" were successful in increasing fruit but not vegetable intake. Those who created two separate implementation strategies, one for fruits and one for vegetables, were successful at increasing both.
  • Use a booster. A March 2010 study from Psychology and Health showed that implementation intentions can lessen in effectiveness over time. Engaging in another strategy session after three months added to the impact of the first. So, repeat the process of answering these three questions every three months. This not only prolongs the effect, but magnifies the benefits as well.
  • For more by Dr. Jade Teta, click here.

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