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Turn Intentions Into Actions

Updated: Jan 11

To kick off the new year, let’s talk about how strategic action plans—or implementation intentions—can help turn your good intentions into solid actions.


Introduction

It’s the new year: a blank slate. A lot of you have probably made a bunch of resolutions. That’s great—it’s a good first step to changing your behaviour for the better. But, unfortunately, resolutions don’t often stick. 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, keep reading.


Planning

The Intention-Behaviour Gap

Why is it so hard to sustain resolutions? Owing to the complexity that is human behaviour, this really is not a straightforward answer, and it is likely that many factors contribute to this phenomenon. Perhaps an easier question to answer is: just how likely are we to actually do something after we intend to do so?


In a meta-analysis of 47 separate experiments, researchers showed that despite individuals having the intention to perform a particular behaviour, this didn’t necessarily translate into actual performance of that behaviour. In fact, only small-to-moderate changes in behaviours occurred despite individuals reporting moderate-to-large changes in their intentions to perform those behaviours (2). This phenomenon has been aptly termed as the intention-behaviour gap (3), where good intentions don’t often translate into desired behaviours.


Intention-behaviour gap

Implementation intentions can help us to bridge this intention-behaviour gap (source: Just Health).


Implementation Intentions

Luckily, there are ways to better bridge the intention-behaviour gap. Implementation intentions—otherwise known as strategic action plans—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 desired outcome. For example, instead of saying ‘I want to eat healthier’ (the outcome), implementation intentions incorporate 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’


Implementation intentions

The more specific you can get with implementation intentions, the better. This makes sense as these plans are trying to ensure that you choose one behaviour instead of another, so you will have to know exactly what behaviour you want to perform (in advance). Our previous example is a good one: eating apples and blueberries is more specific than ‘healthier’; the latter too vague to simplify the desired behaviour of eating healthier.


Do Implementation Intentions Work?

Implementation intentions have a lot of evidence backing their use. In a meta-analysis of 94 independent experiments, implementation intentions led to medium-to-large changes in a range of behaviours (e.g., public transport use, diet, etc.) (4). Implementation intentions have also been shown to improve dietary behaviours and physical activity in other meta-analyses (5,6).


How They Work

Implementation intentions mainly work through the following two processes:

  1. 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

  2. They automate decision making: implementation intentions utilise the if-then format, i.e., if a certain thing happens, then you do what you planned to do. To (once again) go back to our earlier example: if lunchtime comes around and you are home, then you eat your fruit with your sandwich as opposed to the less healthy options


Summary

Spending some time to construct a strategic action plan, or implementation intention, can help you nail those new year 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 how you can join our community.


That’s it for this week, folks. Best of luck with your new year resolutions: you got this!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121


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.


References

(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) 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/


(3) 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


(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/


Technical Terms

Intention-behaviour gap: This is the name given to the phenomenon that we often don’t follow through on our good intentions.


Implementation intentions: Otherwise known as strategic action plans, implementation intentions are a way to improve the likelihood that we follow through on our good intentions. They utilise an if-then format, i.e., if a certain thing happens, then you do what you planned to do (i.e., if X, then Y). Implementation intentions therefore help to make decision making automatic, and reduce the cognitive load of decision making.


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. Meta-analyses are a powerful type of study when performed correctly, and often form the backbone of solid public health recommendations.

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