Hikers at a peak

“Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” Some form of that quote has been attributed to several different people, including former president and World War II general Dwight Eisenhower, but the idea is sound.

Plans change all the time. You might have planned to get a degree in four years, start a business, and become a successful CEO, all before the age of 30, but life threw you a curveball. Financial obstacles, family issues, or simply the realization that you want to do something else with your life can all upend the best-laid plans.

But even if the plans don’t work out, the act of making those plans is crucial. When you’re planning anything, from a simple camping trip to your whole career, there are a few vital steps that will help you accomplish your goals and create a new reality:

  • Clearly define your goals.
  • Lay out the intermediate steps you’ll have to take to get there.
  • Take stock of the resources you have at your disposal.
  • Make lists of additional resources you’ll need.

All of these steps are crucial when it comes to seeing a goal through to the end.

That’s the idea behind implementation intentions. Introduced by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, an implementation intention is essentially an “if-then” plan. By structuring your goals around statements like “If X happens, I will do Y in order to achieve Z,” you’ll cover more contingencies and be better prepared for whatever comes your way.

Reasons Goals Get Off Track

First, let’s look at some of the most common reasons that people fail at their goals:

Failing to Get Started

  • Simply forgetting — you make a goal to lose weight, so you decide to track everything you eat. Then you go out for a nice dinner and forget to catalog your food.
  • Failure to seize opportunities — you make a goal to write a novel, then spend your entire plane ride home for Thanksgiving watching movies rather than beginning your first draft.
  • Second thoughts — you just got home from work and it’s a beautiful day out. You could go for a bike ride before it gets dark, but you’re feeling tired, so you decide to play video games instead.

Getting Derailed

  • Distracting stimuli — you’re trying to eat healthy, but then a coworker brings in donuts as a treat. Before you know it, you’ve eaten two.
  • Bad habits — you’re trying to quit smoking, but you always step outside for a cigarette after dinner. Before you know it, cravings set in and you’re lighting up.
  • Negative moods — you’re trying to save money, but then you have a bad day at work. You stop by the store for some retail therapy, and your savings start to evaporate.

How Implementation Intentions Can Help

An implementation intention turns abstract goals — writing a novel, losing weight, getting your degree, quitting smoking, saving money, or anything else — into clear, concrete steps with a well-defined behavior and context. You’re adding a what, why, and where to your plan.

There are two different pieces of this puzzle. First, identify the action that you need to take in order to achieve your goal and how you’ll know when it’s time to take that action. Let’s say your goal is to exercise more. Lay out the action in an “if-then” format as follows: If I’ve just gotten home from work and the weather is nice, I’ll go for a 30-minute walk.

The next piece is to look for potential obstacles and make a plan for dealing with them. Potential obstacles might include:

  • I didn’t sleep well last night.
  • I’m feeling sluggish today.
  • I had a hard day at work.
  • It’s raining.

Give yourself specific instructions for all the obstacles you come up with. If you didn’t sleep well, have a glass of cold water, and go for your walk in ten minutes. If you’re feeling sluggish, take a shorter walk. If you had a hard day at work, bring some calming music on your walk. If it’s raining, climb up and down the stairs at your apartment building instead.

Adding Structure to Your Goals

We’ve all set a grand goal and fallen short, simply because we hit an obstacle and then started coasting or spinning our wheels, failing to get back on track. Implementation intentions can help with these universal problems by making sure that you’re prepared for the shortfalls that usually knock goals off course.

The best part is that you can use this idea for anything and everything. Whether you want to save for a trip, lose the last ten pounds, finish your college education, learn a language, or whatever else you can think of, the system works.