Do you know what works for you when it comes to planning? You have identified your intentions – the way you want to live your life. You have selected a big hairy audacious goal – you are going to run a marathon. You have your why and you have your what; your intentions and your goal. What is missing… ah, action!

So how are you going to do that? Sure, you can go to a coach and yes you can get a training program, a massage therapist and a nutritionist. But how are you going to do it? How are you going to take action?

Are you the sort of person that once you make up your mind to do something that is it – you just get on and do it? Excellent. Stop reading. Go and climb Everest. But for the rest of us, we need to understand how to plan for success.

How do you turn your intentions and goals into relentless, persistent, patient action over time?

Forming good intentions and setting goals is certainly – at one level – committing to reaching a desired outcome or behaviour. The trouble is, the distance between your goal setting and goal attainment is long, lonely and littered with abandoned dreams (and disused running shoes). To reach your what and to reinforce your why you have to deal with the problems of getting started and persisting until the job is done.

Attaining your goals is more likely if you plan for the following:

Set yourself a challenging, out of reach (based on your current fitness in this instance) specific goal as compared to a challenging, out of reach but a vague goal. So picking a marathon is perfect;

Frame your intentions as a learning goal – learn how to perform a task. Learn how to train for a marathon. Don’t set it as a performance goal (i.e. to find out through task performance how capable you are). Accept that at the outset you won’t enjoy the running; accept that in the beginning you won’t look or feel like a competent runner. Don’t worry about that. Learn how to become a proficient and effective runner. And in doing so learn how to run a marathon;

Focus on the positive – not the negative. So set promotion (positive) not prevention goals (negative).

Regardless of whether you adhere to the philosophies of Stephen Covey, to-do lists or any other type of structured planning used to break down tasks or goals let’s take a look at a different approach to your planning – one that you can apply to whatever practical planning methodology suits your personality.

In 1993 Peter Gollwitzer (psychologist) conceptualised the pre-deciding of the when, where and how of goal implementation (action) in terms of forming implementation intentions.

Setting a goal is a subset of your intentions and specifies a certain endpoint that may be either a desired performance or an outcome. They have the structure of “I intend to run the North Shore Marathon”. Goals translate our non-committed desires (intentions) into something with form. The consequence of having formed a goal intention is then a sense of commitment that obligates us to realise the goal. Well, at least in theory. That is how New Year’s resolutions work. They fail because we lack commitment for or understanding of the next step – the planning/action implementation phase.

Implementation intentions are action steps that specify the when, where and how of responses leading to goal attainment. They have the structure of “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y”. They link anticipated opportunities with goal-directed responses. That is we are committing ourselves to respond to a certain situation in a specific manner. An easy example: “When I first get out of bed and walk into the kitchen I will immediately drink two glasses of water before I turn on the jug.” Or how about: “When my alarm goes off at 5 a.m. I will get out of bed and put my running clothes and shoes on.

The great thing about setting an intention as to how you will implement your goal is that with time the selection of an effective goal-directed behaviour, which is then linked to the chosen critical situation, will lead to the automisation of the behaviour once the critical situation is encountered. After that action initiation becomes swift, efficient, and does not require conscious intent.

Compare the above 2 implementation intentions with how we would normally try and plan for a goal: “Tomorrow I must drink more water” or “I must go running tomorrow.

Your goal planning and implementation then look remarkably similar to the formation of a new habit (which – hello – is exactly the point).

We are trying to hack into our love affair with forming habits so we can strategically switch from conscious and effortful control of our behaviour to automatic, conditioned behaviour.

An implementation intention is simply a plan you used to link a situation or cue with a response that will bring you closer to fulfilling your goal. You achieve this by reframing your goals as “if-then” statements. The if part is the critical situation or cue; the then part is your planned response to that cue.

For example, you have a goal of “running more”.

This would become “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday at 7 am, then I will run my 10km circuit before work”.

Make sure your goals are clear and strong – you cannot plan to achieve vague goals or ones that come from “should-ing on yourself”. You need definite aims that you truly want to go after again, the why and the what). Goals aligned with your life intentions have meaning and authenticity.

Identify your past failures and why you have difficulty starting and sticking with your goals. Doing so will help you determine the structure of your implementation intentions to give yourself the best chance at successful action and behaviours.

Then create the if – this is the situational cue that will either present an opportunity to seize or a temptation to avoid. As Gollwitzer notes:

“The occasion or critical situation specified in the if-part of the plan could be either an internal cue, (e.g. a strong feeling) or an external cue (e.g. a particular place, object, person or point in time).”

Create the then – this is the action/behavioural response you will commence once the if-cue happens. The response is designed to keep you on track towards your goal. For our marathon, it will involve doing but in other situations, it might also involve thinking something or ignoring something.

If you are a typical person and have multiple complexes and obstacles getting in the road of your goals then help is at hand! You can make multiple implementation intentions as long as they are plausible and do not conflict with each other.

Like all action plans your “if-then” statements need to be specific. Vagueness = deliberation and excuses. For example, don’t make the intention “If it is the morning, I will wake up early”but “If it is 6 am Monday-Friday, I will get out of bed”.

Get your planning on paper – write down your implementation intentions and review daily if possible.

Why does the time taken to plan these “if/then” statements pay off? Why should you make this a cornerstone of your planning to achieve your goals?

Get rid of choice – Competing choices are obstacles to action and focus. Remove these choices by giving yourself one pre-established, specific plan of action for the decisions you commonly face (and fail).

Awareness of obstacles and opportunities– doing this work forces you to think about the particular roadblocks that you will face and how you are best to respond. This will heighten your awareness of the threats and opportunities that arise each day, and in doing so you can identify when and where you need to take action to succeed.

Automate your responses – If you have already decided what your plan is when a certain situation arises, then you are far less likely to forget to act, you won’t waste time deliberating and you are more likely to conquer the all-pervasive short term benefits over your long term ones in the heat of the moment.

Conserves willpower – By “outsourcing” our decisions to an automatic response to a particular cue (if/then) we can bypass the deliberation process (which fatigues our self-control) and in doing so conserves our will power – the fuel that helps us take action to achieve our goals.

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