For many of us, willpower may seem like an impossible obstacle to overcome. But if you plan ahead, you won’t need to rely on it to achieve your goals, according to “Willpower Doesn’t Work” author Benjamin P. Hardy.
Hardy calls this kind of preparation an “implementation intention.” The strategy requires visualizing not only your goals but also any potential obstacles and how you will overcome them.
“An implementation intention is a pre-planned response to a negative situation,” Hardy tells NBC News Better.
When you have a implementation intention planned, he says, your decision on how to handle a negative situation has already been made.
“It was made before you had to use willpower, and basically, from a psychological perspective, willpower can only exist if you haven’t already made a choice,” he explains.
Plan for failure
The author called implementation intentions “failure planing.”
“You say ‘If x happens, then I’ll do this,’” Hardy explains.
For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, you can make a plan to call a friend who will distract you the next time you have a craving, he says.
He says these pre-planned responses prepare you against succumbing to a bad choices before they present themselves.
“So it’s just planning for the worst so you can actually come out a victor in that situation,” he says.
To be effective, your implementation intention needs to be specific to your goals, according to the writer. If it’s too broad then you probably won’t use it, he notes.
“The more specific the implementation intention, the more effective it is,” Hardy says.
Let’s say you’re on a diet but you’re going to a party where you know the host will offer you something unhealthy. You want to say ’no’ but don’t want to be rude.
According to Hardy, you can plan ahead to tell her, “I’ll get back to you on that.” This is a specific response that doesn’t reject her hospitality or give you an excuse to give into temptation.
“If you don’t know what you’re going to do in the situation, then you’ve got to sit and make decisions,” he says. “It’s like if you’re at the party and someone offers you something you don’t want, [if] you haven’t already pre-planned your response, then you have to think about it.”
Become a better team player
“Will it make the boat go faster?”
It’s the question the 2000 British men’s crew team asked themselves before every decision they made — a strategy that helped them win their first Olympic gold since 1912. It’s also Hardy’s favorite implementation intention, and one he thinks we can all apply to our lives.
If you ask yourself this question before making any decision, he says, it forces you to think about not only how it will help you achieve your own goals, but the larger goal of your team or organization.
“It wasn’t about, ‘Will this make me a better rower?’” he says. “It was like, ‘Will this make our boat go faster? Because we’re representing our country.’ So if you can connect it to as many things as possible, it makes it more meaningful and impactful.”
The point of an implementation intention is to be deliberate about how you will achieve your goals, Hardy says.
“It’s being intentional about where you’re going,” he says. “So in the case of the rowing team, they had a very clear goal — they wanted to win the Olympic gold. And they made sure that [was] their implementation intention.”
Have a plan for overcoming mental blocks
Implementation intentions can help us when we’re feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed, according to Hardy. The PhD candidate and father of three says he used them to overcome mental blocks while writing his book.
“I would think about the rowing team — ‘Is this going to make my boat go faster?’ I would just always think about in my own mind where I needed to be and I would get myself to write,” Hardy recalls.
The author thought out pre-planned responses to help him overcome mental blocks.
“If I’m confused about what I want to do, if I’m not feeling motivated, I pull out my journal and I literally just write down my top five goals and that triggers back what matters to me, and then I get back into flow and I start writing,” Hardy says.
How to use implementation intentions to achieve your goals
- Plan to fail. Implementation intentions require visualizing not only your goals but also any potential obstacles and how you will overcome them. Ask yourself, “What will I do if X happens?”
- Get specific. To be effective, your implementation intention needs to be specific to your goals. Have an exact plan for how you will respond in a situation that is negative to your goal.
- Become a better team player. “Will it make the boat go faster?” The question the 2000 British men’s crew team asked themselves before every decision helped them win their first Olympic gold in 88 years. This kind of implementation intention can help you not only achieve your own goals but the goals of your team or organization.
- Be deliberate. The point of an implementation intention is to be deliberate about how you will achieve your goals. Understand your larger goal and create implementation intentions that drive you towards it.
- Work on overcoming mental blocks. Pre-planned responses can help you overcome mental blocks. Make a plan to write in a journal, go for a walk, or anything that will trigger you back to your goals when you’re feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed.