Using science to turn our intentions, into actions

March 29, 2022

People say that intention is what counts. Unfortunately, when it comes to changing our behaviour, having an intention is the first step, but it isn't enough. Think of how many times you've decided you wanted to start meditating, or be more physically active only to realise that once more, you haven't followed through. We've all been there. If having an intention were enough, we would all ace our new year's resolutions!

The intention-action gap

Research suggests that intentions are translated into actual behaviour only half of the time! This means that 50% of the time we get 'stuck' in the gap between what we intend to do, and what we we end up doing. This is what's called the intention-action gap. So what is it that's keeping us from doing the things we intend to do, and how can we shorten the intention-action gap?

It all starts with how we frame our goals

The first thing to consider is the nature of the goals we are setting for ourselves. Studies have identified three main factors that can increase the likelihood of succeeding at our intended actions:

  • Setting concrete and specific goals: Our brain doesn't like ambiguity. When we don't provide it with enough information, our brain goes into 'panic mode' as it looks for the most certain option available. This is where the specificity of our goals matters: Instead of saying 'I want to be more physically active', can you set a guideline on how often you'd want to do it? For example 'I want to go for a walk at lunchtime every other day'. Of course you can modify this guideline as you go along (remember flexibility over rigidity, always), but by having a clear idea of what it is that you want to do, you're increasing the likelihood of actually doing it.
  • Setting goals based on personal beliefs and values: When we base our goals on social norms or on what we think we 'should' do, we lack the internal motivation that will help us get there. Aligning our goals with what matters to us is a strong predictor of success. You can ask yourself the question, why is this goal important to me? Using the same example of walking, maybe you set this goal because it will make you healthier and you value health. Aligning our goals to our values will not only increase the likelihood of achieving them, but it can also increase our life satisfaction.
  • Setting goals that pass the test of time: The most powerful predictor of wether or not we follow through with our goals is temporal stability. This means that when the intention underpinning our goals is one that we've had for a long time, or one that is unlikely to change in the near future, the gap between intention and action becomes shorter.

Less is more

Other big factor that can hinder our ability to achieve our goals is the number, and the complexity of our goals. We tend to set a very high bar for ourselves. We create endless to-do lists and we feel disappointed when we can't tick every item off. The reality is that we have a limited number of mental resources that we can allocate to the completion of tasks. Once that brain power is used up, we have no resources left to complete more tasks. This is what's called ego depletion.

To put it simply, imagine your brain is a watering can that can only be filled up once a day, and your goals are plants you need to water everyday. If you have 2 medium-sized plants, you can easily water both and maybe even have some water left. And because you don't want to be wasteful, you decide to buy 2 more plants and finish all the water you had left. But then you realise you're very good at watering plants so you buy two more! The problem is that you have the same amount of water, so the only way of watering them all is by adding less water into each pot. As time goes by you keep buying more and more plants, and adding less and less water into each of them. Eventually, your plants receive so little water that they begin to dry you have to make a decision, which plants are you going to save? Inevitably, having too many goals or tasks to complete will have two possible outcomes: you either finish them all in a suboptimal way while feeling completely depleted, or you give up a few and focus on the ones that matter the most to you. Having just enough goals to keep us going without depleting our mental capacity, not only will increase our chances of success, but it can also be a strong protective factor against burnout.

Keep yourself accountable

Accountability is a big drive for action. It can come from us signing up to a fitness class, telling a friend about our goals, or telling the Holly bird about it! Whatever it is, having someone or something that keeps you accountable will make it easier to keep going when motivation is nowhere to be found.

Acknowledge your progress

We need to be careful of not falling into the trap of the modern world: We are so goal driven that we often fail to recognise our effort, and how far we've come. Our default as a society is to achieve a goal, and then quickly move on to the next thing without stopping to enjoy the fruits of our hard work. Taking time to acknowledge and celebrate our progress (no matter how small), will keep us motivated along the way. Because as cliche as it may sound, it's all about the journey, not the destination!

Pause and reflect

As well as acknowledging our progress, we need to take time to reflect on any obstacles and learnings we may encounter along the way. Identifying the factors that are holding us back, and coming up with a strategy to overcome those obstacles can increase our flexibility and adaptability skills in the face of a challenge, and it will also help us get to know ourselves better! It's only when we've identified our 'default' reactions and behaviours in the face of adversity, that we can begin to consciously modify how we approach the situation in a way that allows us to grow, and move forward.

Plan ahead using the 'If-then strategy'

Once we've identified the major obstacles that keep us from taking action, we can begin to make a plan to tackle those setbacks, and increase our chances of success.

Implementation of Intentions or the 'If-then strategy' is an evidence-based approach that can increase the likelihood of us turning our intentions into actions by 50%!

This strategy goes something like this: Imagine you want to read for 15 minutes before bed every night (i.e. your goal/action). The problem is that oftentimes you get distracted by scrolling through social media instead (i.e. your main obstacle). So you come up with the plan to put your phone on airplane mode to stop scrolling all the way through the night. Taken together, your if-then strategy would look like this:

If I start scrolling through social media before bed, then I will put my phone on airplane mode and read for 15 minutes instead.

Another way of applying Implementation of Intentions is by planning to do your desired action when presented with a specific opportunity. Using the example above, a good opportunity to read your book could be when the show you usually watch after dinner is not on. In that case your strategy could be:

If there's nothing I fancy watching after dinner, then I will read for 15 minutes instead.

The strength of this tool lies on the fact that our brain will do anything to save up some energy. And because it turns out that making decisions is a pretty arduous job, it will always prefer to take what it seems to be the easiest, most straightforward route. This means that by pre-deciding what your behaviour will be when presented with a specific scenario (in this case, your biggest challenge and/or opportunity), your brain will waste no energy in deciding what to do because it's already been decided!

With enough repetition, your planned behaviour will become effortless and automatic, which are the two key ingredients that make up a habit.

If you want to give it a go, the Holly bird can guide you through an if-then strategy exercise so you too can begin turning your intentions into actions!

By Dr. Daniela Mercado Beivide
Holly's Co-creator and Content & Research Manager