Leaving Post-Its On the Walls In Your Head

Posted by   Annette on    March 19, 2018

remember.jpgThe Power of Implementation Intentions--And How to Use Them

It’s the middle of March. Is it time to run upstairs with a vuvuzela and wake up your sleeping New Years Resolutions? Probably. According to a 2002 publication in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50% of the folks who say they set a resolution have officially failed to follow it by April. (That number is probably lower. It was a self-reported study, and humans hate to admit they suck.)

I have that vuvuzela to lend you. It’s called implementation intentions.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, you’re certainly not alone. This dissertation (from Peter M. Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen of the the Department of Psychology at New York University) does a great job in treating the subject, but the upshot is this: implementation intentions are simple, they’re do-able, and they work. They’ve been tested, and those tests show that the subjects who used them significantly improved the chances of forming new habits that stuck.

So what is this wizardry?

Clashing With Initial Reluctance

There are two people living in your head right now. Since they’re in everybody’s head, I’ll introduce you to mine: Right-Now-Nette and Future-Nette.

They hate each other. Future-Nette is always having to take out Right-Now-Nette’s trash and clean the stack of dirty dishes that Right-Now-Nette leaves in her metaphysical sink. Everything Right-Now-Nette does is a problem for Future-Nette to solve. Goal-setting is really the sudden inspiration that Right-Now-Nette gets to satisfy Future-Nette’s constant nagging--because Right-Now-Nette and Future-Nette always seem to meet within the blast radius of Right-Now-Nette’s bad decisions.

Those decisions were made, generally speaking, when Right-Now-Nette was ignoring Future-Nette’s frantic calls and text messages. In order to set goals and keep them, Right-Now-Nette has to remain in solid communication, but there are so many things that drop the signal: depression, for one (especially if you’re not managing depression), unhealthy stress, anxiety and our old friend ego depletion (well worth a read in and of itself), just to name a few.

Implementation Intentions: Instant Triggers

If the communication between Future-You and Right-Now-You is comparable to a spotty cell signal, then the only way to keep it going is to set instantaneous reminders that Right-Now-You has to see. Use the equivalent of post-it notes all over the important goals in your life.

Implementation intentions simplify your goals into very simple “if, then” statements. That’s it.

The “if” part is the situational cue--the colorful post-it note that catches your attention. The “then” part is your planned response to that cue--what’s written on the note.

Some examples.

Here are a few standard goals:

  • I’ll start meditating every day.

  • I’ll run three times a week.

  • I’ll stop scrolling so much.

  • I’ll stop living paycheck to paycheck and save more.

Those change into:

  • If I have just woken up, then I’m grabbing my phone and doing a 15-minute meditation practice from my meditation app.”

  • If it’s Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday at 9a.m., then I’m setting off on a five-mile run.”

  • If I have just received a paycheck, then I’m putting 15% of it into savings.”

You can stack them, if the stack is simple:

You’ll notice that the implementations have a few things in common:

  • They’re dead clear.

  • They phrasally take for granted that the action is happening.

It’s elegant and it’s powerful: more than a decade of research, comprising nearly a hundred studies have illustrated the effectiveness of implementation intentions. They can actually double your likelihood of achieving your goals. No shit.

How to Craft a Solid Implementation Intention

Pare it down.

If you were communicating with a roommate or a partner or a lover and left the house covered in post-its, you’d get no helpful response. Right? Same goes for Right-Now-You. Choose your top 3-5 and commit, commit, commit.

Decide on the best places to stick your notes.

Be very specific about the times and places you either get derailed (“If I’m opening the fridge, then I’m stopping and deciding if I’m really hungry”) or most likely to follow through with the action (“If I’m getting in the car, then I’m cueing up a book-on-tape from my must-read list.”)

Check for vagueness.

If your post-it note on the trash can says “take care of this,” then the recipient of your note could choose to interpret that in all sorts of ways, right? Your Right-Now-You is a lazy roommate. Make the note incredibly specific, and then double-check that there’s no way it could be mistaken.

Example: “If it’s nighttime, then I won’t go to bed too late” is easily fudgeable. “If it’s 11:00p.m. Sunday-Thursday, then I am in bed, turning off my devices and turning off the light.”

How Do These Work?

It’s a three-pronged approach, baby.

  • They heighten awareness of obstacles to your goals as well as the opportunities to meet them. Wasted time and weak moments have a tendency to dissolve in the face of a clearly framed implementation intention.

  • They eliminate choices and automate responses. Like a well-behaved robot, you’re already doing what you said you were doing.

  • They conserve your precious willpower. Since you’ve handed off the decision-making process, there’s no willpower available to fall prey to ego depletion.

Right-Now-You is a punk-ass motherfucker who doesn’t do nothing for nobody for free. It’s true. But, just like the most annoying teenager, there’s a perfectly functional adult in there just waiting for the right stimuli to create a more pleasant existence for Future-You. Will Implementation Intentions be the key to get Right-Now-You on board?


Try the tool and see if it works for you. Your two warring cohabitants might finally find peace.


'remember!' photo credit: Wade Morgen Remember via photopin (license)

robot photo credit: Ian Sane Pane Staking Art Form via photopin (license)