The Impact of Implementation Intentions

Behaviour change can be challenging, especially when it involves adopting new habits and breaking old ones.

One powerful strategy to help bridge the gap between intentions and actions is the use of implementation intentions.

These are specific plans that link a situational cue with a planned behaviour, making it easier to stick to your goals by automating your responses to common challenges.

In this guide, we explore the concept of implementation intentions, how to create them, and practical tips for using them to achieve your health and weight loss goals.

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What are implementation intentions?

Implementation intentions are specific “if-then” plans that outline exactly when and where you will perform a desired behaviour. They help to automate your responses to particular situations, reducing the need for conscious decision-making and making it easier to follow through with your intentions.

  • If-then structure. Implementation intentions follow an “if-then” format: “If [situation], then I will [behaviour].”
  • Situational cues. The “if” part refers to a specific situation or cue that triggers the intended behaviour.
  • Planned behaviour. The “then” part specifies the action you will take in response to the situational cue.

Why use implementation intentions

Implementation intentions are crucial because they:

  • Reduce cognitive load. By planning your responses in advance, you reduce the mental effort required to make decisions in the moment.
  • Increase consistency. They help you stick to your weight loss goals consistently, even when you’re tired, stressed, or distracted.
  • Overcome obstacles. Implementation intentions prepare you for common challenges and obstacles, making it easier to stay on track.
  • Enhance self-regulation. They improve your ability to regulate your behaviour and make healthier choices automatically.

How to create implementation intentions

Identify situations

Start by identifying situations or cues that are likely to challenge your goals. These could be specific times of day, locations, emotional states, or social settings.

Example: If you tend to snack mindlessly while watching TV, the situation could be “watching TV in the evening.”

Plan your response

Decide in advance how you will respond to these situations. The response should be a specific, actionable behaviour that supports your goal.

Example: If your goal is to avoid unhealthy snacking, your planned response could be “then I will prepare a bowl of fresh vegetables to eat.”

Write it down

Create clear, concise if-then statements that link the situation to the planned behaviour. Writing them down reinforces your commitment and serves as a reminder.

Example: “If I feel like snacking while watching TV, then I will prepare a bowl of fresh vegetables to eat.”

Start small

Begin with a few key situations and gradually expand as you become more comfortable with the process. Focusing on one or two behaviours at a time increases your chances of success.

Review and adjust

Regularly review your implementation intentions and assess their effectiveness. Be flexible and willing to adjust your plans as needed based on your experiences and progress.

Examples of implementation intentions

Here are some examples of implementation intentions for various health and weight loss goals:

  • Healthy eating
    • Situation: If I am offered dessert at a social event,
    • Response: Then I will choose a fruit-based option or politely decline.
    • Situation: If I am at the grocery store,
    • Response: Then I will buy at least three types of vegetables.
  • Exercise
    • Situation: If it is 7am on a weekday,
    • Response: Then I will go for a 30-minute walk.
    • Situation: If I feel too tired to go to the gym after work,
    • Response: Then I will do a 15-minute home workout instead.
  • Stress management
    • Situation: If I start to feel stressed at work,
    • Response: Then I will take a 5-minute break to practise deep breathing exercises.
    • Situation: If I have a stressful day,
    • Response: Then I will take a relaxing bath or read a book in the evening.
  • Hydration
    • Situation: If I finish a meal,
    • Response: Then I will drink a glass of water.
    • Situation: If it is 10am,
    • Response: Then I will refill my water bottle and drink it throughout the day.

Tips for successful implementation intentions

  • Be specific. The more specific your implementation intentions, the more effective they will be. Clearly define the situation and the behaviour in precise terms.
  • Make it realistic. Ensure that your planned response is realistic and achievable. Setting overly ambitious goals can lead to frustration and decreased motivation.
  • Align with your goals. Your implementation intentions should align with your broader weight loss goals. Make sure each if-then plan supports your overall objectives.
  • Use positive language. Frame your intentions in positive terms, focusing on what you will do rather than what you won’t do. Positive language reinforces a proactive mindset.
  • Visualise success. Take a few moments to visualise yourself successfully executing your implementation intentions. This mental rehearsal can increase your confidence and readiness to act.

Common challenges and solutions

While implementation intentions are a powerful tool, you may encounter some challenges. Here are common obstacles and how to overcome them:

  • Challenge: Forgetting your plans
    • Solution: Write down your implementation intentions and place them in visible locations, such as on your fridge, bathroom mirror, or desk. Setting reminders on your phone can also help.
  • Challenge: Lack of motivation
    • Solution: Start with small, manageable intentions that require minimal effort. Gradually increase the complexity as you build confidence and motivation.
  • Challenge: Unforeseen situations
    • Solution: Be flexible and adapt your intentions as needed. If an unexpected situation arises, think on your feet and try to apply the principles of implementation intentions to come up with a new plan.
  • Challenge: Inconsistent execution
    • Solution: Regularly review and adjust your implementation intentions. Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, and make changes to improve consistency.

Incorporate implementation intentions into daily life

To maximise the benefits of implementation intentions, integrate them into your daily routine. Here’s how:

  • Morning routine. Begin your day by reviewing your implementation intentions. Visualise the situations and your planned responses. This practice sets a positive tone and prepares you for the day ahead.
  • Evening reflection. At the end of each day, reflect on how well you executed your implementation intentions. Identify successes and areas for improvement. Adjust your plans as needed for the next day.
  • Weekly review. Set aside time each week to review your overall progress. Assess which implementation intentions are working well and which need adjustments. This regular review helps you stay focused and motivated.
  • Incorporate into habit tracking. If you’re using a habit tracker, include your implementation intentions. Tracking your adherence to these plans can provide additional motivation and accountability.

Final thoughts

By creating specific if-then plans, you can automate your responses to common challenges and stay on track with your health and weight loss goals.

Remember to be specific, realistic, and positive in your plans, and regularly review and adjust them as needed.

With implementation intentions, you can enhance your self-regulation, overcome obstacles, and make lasting changes to improve your overall wellbeing.

Start integrating implementation intentions into your daily routine today and take control of your behaviour change journey.

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