Updated: Jul 23
It’s January 5th 2023, which means that a lot of you have made new year’s resolutions. In this article, we talk about how strategic action plans—or implementation intentions—can help turn your good intentions into solid actions.
It’s the new year; a blank slate. A lot of you have made resolutions for the new year. That’s great—it’s a good first step to changing your behaviour for the better. But, unfortunately, they don’t often last. In an older study, although 77% of new-year resolvers maintained their resolution(s) one week into the new year, only about one in five could sustain them for two years (1). If this sounds familiar, this article may be well worth your attention.
The Intention-Behaviour Gap
Why is it so hard to sustain resolutions? This is not an easy question to answer, and there is no doubt that quite a few factors are at play. One which might help to explain the high rates of failure is a phenomenon known as the intention-behaviour gap (2). This concept is fairly self-explanatory: good intentions don’t often translate into desired behaviours.
In a meta-analysis of 47 interventions—where the results of all of these interventions were converted into one overall result—only small-to-medium changes were shown for actual behaviours despite medium-to-large changes in intentions. In other words, essentially half of the effect size reported for intentions was reported for behaviours (3). Getting around this issue is clearly crucial if the aim is to sustain good intentions long-term. This brings us to implementation intentions.
Otherwise known as strategic action plans, implementation intentions offer a means to translate intentions into behaviour. They do this by specifying the where, when, and how of goal-striving, as opposed to just specifying the desirable outcome. For example, instead of saying “I want to eat more fruit and less junk food” (the outcome), you could plan the specifics:
Where: “When I am at home”
When: “At lunchtime”
How: “I will choose an apple and a handful of blueberries to go with my sandwich rather than the bar of chocolate and bag of crisps that I usually eat”
Do Implementation Intentions Work?
In a meta-analysis of 94 independent experiments which measured the effect of implementation intentions on a range of goals (e.g., public transport use, diet, etc.), results showed a medium-to-large magnitude of effect of the interventions for attaining said goals (4). To fit with the lunch example given earlier, a 2011 meta-analysis reported small-to-medium effects of implementation intentions in improving dietary behaviours (5). A more recent meta-analysis from May 2022 showed concordance, reporting similar findings for this intervention in the improvement of dietary behaviours (6).
There are some limitations to note. Namely, most trials were short-term, comparison groups were oftentimes weak (which may inflate the effect sizes), and they often relied on retrospective recalls for outcome measures—essentially relying on people’s memory for things like diet. However, given the consistency across studies, it is reasonable to conclude that there is some efficacy to these types of interventions.
How Do They Work
Implementation intentions mainly work through the following two processes:
They’re easy to remember: when you specify a critical situation in advance, it will be much more readily recalled than something that is half-heartedly planned
The if-then format: if a certain thing happens, then you do what you planned to do. To go back to our example about lunch: if lunchtime comes around and you are home, then you eat your fruit with your sandwich as opposed to the less healthy options. This makes the decision-making process simple as you don’t have to think about it—it becomes automatic
Spending some time to construct a strategic action plan, or implementation intention, can help you nail those new year's resolutions. Refer back to the if-then format when making these, i.e., “if X happens, then I will do Y”. Including information on the where, when, and how can make these plans even more solid.
Why not strategically plan to be a better footballer by becoming a member of Training121? Contact us at [email protected] to learn more about our new tiered membership system that launches on Monday, January 9th.
That’s it for this week, folks. Keep an eye out for our next few articles throughout January which are all designed to inform and educate you to make better choices this year!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Norcross JC, Vangarelli DJ. The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. J Subst Abuse. 1988;1(2):127–34. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0899328988800166
(2) Sheeran P, Webb TL. The Intention-Behavior Gap. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2016;10(9):503–18. Available at: https://compass.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/spc3.12265
(3) Webb TL, Sheeran P. Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychol Bull. 2006;132(2):249–68. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16536643/
(4) Gollwitzer PM, Sheeran P. Implementation intentions and goal achievement: a meta-analysis of effects and processes. Adv Exp Soc Psychol. 2006;38:69–119. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0065260106380021
(5) Adriaanse MA, Vinkers CD, De Ridder DT, Hox JJ, De Wit JB. Do implementation intentions help to eat a healthy diet? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence. Appetite. 2011;56(1):183–93. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666310005325
(6) Lin H, Yu P, Yang M, et al. Making Specific Plan Improves Physical Activity and Healthy Eating for Community-Dwelling Patients With Chronic Conditions: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Front Public Health. 2022;10:721223. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9160833/
Intentions: When we talk about intentions in this context, we’re usually talking about goal intentions, i.e., people’s self instructions to achieve certain outcomes, e.g., I will write that book someday. Behaviour intentions, which are self instructions to perform the actions needed to achieve these outcomes (e.g., I will sit at my desk every morning at 8am and write that book), are more specific and action-oriented, and therefore more in line with implementation intentions.
Meta-analysis: This is a type of study that combines the results of a number of other studies that look at the same thing, and produces a summative estimate of the effect or association of what’s being studied. For example, a meta-analysis of five studies looking at smoking and lung cancer would combine the results from all five studies into one overall result, with the intention of providing a better estimate of the true effect of smoking on lung cancer.
Effect size: This measures the strength of the relation between two variables. Formal measures include Cohen’s d, Hedge’s g, and Pearson’s r, to name a few.