Why don't your intentions result in the necessary behavior to achieve your goals? Why do we do the things we don't want to do and not do the things we do want to do? This age-old dilemma impacts us all at one time or another.
We intend to get in shape. We intend to stick to our budget. And we really mean it. But then our intentions don't turn into our behavior.
During January of a brand new year, intentions tend to take the form of resolutions, which seem to be guaranteed statistically to fail. In fact, most don't make it through January before abandoning their good intentions.
This doesn't appear to vary with the type of intention, be it exercise, diet, or some other self-improvement goal. It is also true regardless of when you resolve to do something.
What's the problem?
We intend to take the action, but we never do. Why? And, more importantly, how can we change that?
One of the frustrating things about intentions and behavior is though they often have a wide gap between them, the gap doesn't occur every time nor in every situation.
For instance, when under deadline, or under someone's expectations, behavior is more likely to follow our intentions. While we may not start as early as we should, we typically will get the job done, on time. Does this mean that we are motivated by others' perception of us? If so, can we use this to help us achieve our intentions more frequently?
What's the Plan?
Research indicates clearly that an intention-behavior relationship is made stronger when a plan is formed for how and when intentions will be turned into behavior. This implementation plan seems to delegate control of the action or behavior to some external circumstance. This could be an alternative explanation to why we act when under deadline. The external control of an externally imposed deadline might serve to motivate us to action.
This idea of creating a plan is corroborated by Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist at Harvard University who studies the gap between intention and action. In a Tedx Talk, Rogers explained that in various studies they have found three things that seem to turn intention into behavior. He conducted this particular research in the area of voter mobilization, but said that the three things will work in other areas connected with intentions as well.
The first is prompting to make a plan. "People are more likely to follow through when they are prompted to make a plan," Rogers said. This follows what we have already discussed.
How, specifically, will you take the action to follow through on your intention?
Can Peer Pressure Be a Good Thing?
Second, Rogers said to leverage peer pressure, in this case positive peer pressure. He used the example of people being more likely to follow through with voting when they believe other people are taking that same action.
Negative peer pressure certainly impacts behavior, so why shouldn't positive? For example, we work on completing our portion of the big presentation at work, at least in rough form, by the next meeting in order to meet the expectations of our presentation partners.
If kept in a healthy context, building positive peer pressure into your implementation plan can work well.
What You Think Matters
The last item that Rogers discussed was the self-concept. He said that, "People are more likely to follow through when their relevant identity is reinforced."
This suggests that by reinforcing our self-concept as it relates to a particular intention could be a useful component of our plan.
The theory of reasoned action connects behavioral intentions with beliefs about the likelihood of the desired outcome. In other words, when you believe that a specific action is very likely to lead to a positive outcome, you are more willing to follow your intentions with behavior.
Not only that, but your belief about your ability to perform a particular behavior is also connected to following through on intentions. You may say you want to do this or that, but if you don't actually believe in your heart that you have the ability to do it, you will procrastinate and put off acting on your intention. This typically comes dressed up as something else, one of any number of excuses.
The Connection Shortcut
Rather than spending a lot of time trying to figure out what you believe and analyzing your past, you can take advantage of the connection shortcut.
There is a connection between what you believe about your likelihood of success from some action and the implementation of that action.
For example, when I decided I was going to go back to school and finish my degree, the process of completing all the paperwork and additionally needed credits (9) took less than a month. I was certain that completing this action would lead to getting a degree, which I also believed would allow me to focus on the type of work I enjoy at a higher wage. In short, it would lead to increased income.
Conversely, I have more than 60,000 words written on a fiction story that I began a number of years ago (more than eight) and continue to plug away at. I certainly intend to finish it.
While my daughter and husband insist that readers will love it, I tend to focus on the publishing industry and the difficulty in getting published. It's not that I don't think it is a good story or that readers won't like it. I do. I just have doubt about the likelihood of publishing. However, the potential outcome is the same as getting a degree; increased income.
It is the belief in the outcome that directs behavior.
So what does this mean? How can you use this information to help you to do what you want to do?
Begin With A Plan
To put this information to work for you, follow this four step formula.
1. Find a way to build in peer pressure, or accountability
2. Tie the behavior to a self-concept
3. Find a way to increase your belief in your desired outcome
4. Increase your perception of your ability to perform the task
One way to accomplish this is to break the intention down into a smaller unit, something that would feel more doable.
For example, if my goal is to complete my fiction book and submit it to publishers, the approach might look like this:
Set a definite time of day that I will work on the story for a specific period of time or number of words written.
Send the unfinished manuscript to three friends who will want to know how it ends, or, send a query package to agents prior to finishing, knowing that I better have the whole thing done if they ask to see it.
Tie the intention to my self-concept as a writer and storyteller.
Change the focus of the goal from "getting published" an outcome I have less belief in, to "finish the story and submit it." I believe I have total control of this outcome.
By using this formula, which is research based, you can move away from "good intentions" (which apparently make good paving material) and toward successfully translating your intentions into the behaviors you want.