Task planning and implementation intentions: how to get anything done

task planning and implementation intentions

Even if you love your work, it’s likely that that you don’t love some of the things you have to do on a regular basis.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the merest thought of some of the recurring tasks you’re faced with has the power to drain all hope from your being.

You’ll have your own pet hates, but three of mine are management reporting, time recording and completing compulsory online training modules.

Unfortunately, these hated tasks are often among the most important things we need to do.

If you slack on the three that I’ve identified, for example, you’ll potentially put your job, your pay and your professional status at risk.

For the most part, these kinds of tasks are not challenging, which is why they are rarely welcomed. But they can cause us a disproportionate amount of stress, usually because we leave them until the last possible moment and then find that we have a whole lot of other urgent work that needs to be done at the same time.

And the worst thing is that this is not the kind of stress that is worth enduring because there’s a good payoff at the end. The ‘pay-off’ is usually a sense frustration at lost time and the deadening knowledge of having to do it all again next time.

So how can we make this better? How can we get these troublesome tasks done with as little pain, frustration and wasted time as possible?

Task planning and implementation intentions – the science of getting things done

The secret, as with many things in life, is all in the task planning.

But it’s not simply about adding these tasks to your to do list and hoping you can fit them in. It turns out that there is a massive difference between the following two approaches:

  1. I will complete this month’s management reporting by close of business on the last day of the month.
  2. I will complete the management reporting for Project X on Thursday of this week as soon as I arrive in the morning and I’ll complete the reporting for Project Y immediately after the team meeting on Friday (and I’ll block out my calendar accordingly).

Psychologists will tell you that the latter is an example of ‘implementation intention’, or ‘if-then planning’, whereas the former, as virtually anybody could tell you, is little more than wishful thinking.

Implementation intentions are plans that set up situational cues (i.e. specific times or circumstances) and link them directly with actions that will bring about a desired outcome. Thus, in the example above, the plan is : “if it’s first thing on Thursday, then it’s time to complete the Project X reporting”.

As you can see, there’s nothing especially complex about this. You might even think that it’s a John Cleese-like statement of the bleeding obvious to suggest that the second approach is likely to be more effective than the first one. And, to some extent, it probably is. But that doesn’t mean we always plan like this or that it doesn’t work.

In fact research show that it is twice as likely that a goal will be achieved when if-then planning is used, than when a mere intention to complete the goal is expressed (Gollwitzer, 1993).

Just think about that. That is a huge difference and represents a whole lot of effectiveness in return for a little bit of specific planning when you are contemplating the tasks you have to do.

Why intention is not enough

So why does this work? Or, to put it another way, why are we so unsuccessful in completing tasks and attaining goals that we don’t approach in this way? If my intention is to improve my work life balance and my plan is to “see more of my family”, why is that unlikely to work?

The problem is one of self-regulation. However well-intentioned my desire to balance my life, there are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t follow through with my ‘plan’.

For example, I may fail to seize available opportunities to take the right action because I focus a disproportionate amount of attention on other goals that, as they arise, I consider to be more urgent or of higher priority (“I have to stay late with the rest of the team or I won’t be respected”, “I cannot go home this evening until I get this advice finished”).

Another reason is that I may have goals that are simply incompatible with the goal in question (“I have to work flat out on this project for the next six months because I think it will get me the promotion I’m looking for”).

Or maybe, when I do find a moment to try to implement my plan, I find that have not properly considered what’s involved or whether I’m in a position to take the necessary action at that time (“I can definitely get home for dinner tonight but it turns out that the children are staying at their grandmother’s”).

What makes these self-regulatory obstacles even more insidiously powerful is that they mostly take effect without our realising – so our choice of the more urgent activity only becomes clear to us when we realise we haven’t done the thing we intended to do.

Why if – then plans are where it’s at

The reason if-then planning works (according to Peter Gollwitzer, the leading scholar in the field), is that it deals effectively with the self-regulatory problems that undermine goal striving.

This is because the two-fold structure of implementation intentions means that people are in a good position both to see and to seize good opportunities to move toward their goals. The “if x occurs” trigger promotes the need to act and makes it very hard for the opportunity to be ignored. The “then” component, consisting of a specific goal-directed action, promotes a virtually automatic response (Gollwitzer & Sheeran (2006)).

The evidence also shows that if-then planning is most effective when the kind of self-regulatory problems identified above are particularly difficult to overcome. However, you must ensure that the ‘if’ condition will occur with appropriate frequency and regularity and that the action to be taken is specific, achievable (although best if challenging) and will be instrumental in fulfilling the goal that you are seeking achieve.

Thus committing to get fit by doing ten press-ups if England win the football World Cup is unlikely to cut it.

Gollwitzer suggests that making if-then plans in this way amounts to the creation of a kind of automatic routine. It is by virtue of this automation that much of our precious self-control energy is conserved because far less willpower is required when our unconscious mind, rather than our conscious mind, can direct our behaviour.

As a result, much of the stress and effort is taken out of the tasks the planning is applied to, which is why if-then planning is so effective for all those things we can’t stand doing but which we have no choice but to do.

Task planning and implementation intentions – Notes

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1993). Goal achievement: The role of intentions. European Review of Social Psychology, 4, 141-185.

In this paper Gollwitzer reports his famous Christmas essay study. Just before the Christmas break he asked a group students to write an essay about how they spent Christmas Eve. The essay was to be completed and sent in no later than two days after Christmas Eve. At the time of receiving their instructions, half of the students were asked to specify in writing when and where they would write their essay (i.e. they formed an implementation intention) and the other half (the control group) were given no such instructions. Once the returned essays were analysed, it turned out that 71% of the students with implementation intentions wrote their essay within the two day period, compared with only 32% of the control group.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.

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