Discovering the Form of the Self-regulatory Problem
Because implementation intentions are formed to aid the translation of goal intentions into action, a useful starting point for if-then planning is to identify what self-regulatory problem besets a person’s goal striving—what prevents the person from reaching goal X? Gollwitzer and Sheeran’s (2006) review suggested that problems in getting started with goal striving and getting derailed are likely to pose significant self-regulatory challenges across a range of different behaviors and various goal domains. It seems wise, however, to discover whether these problems arise and what particular form the self-regulatory problem takes (e.g., remembering to act versus initial reluctance) among one’s target population. Several strategies can be used in this regard. For instance, previous qualitative or quantitative research concerning the focal behavior can provide clues about the nature of the self-regulatory challenges. Also, pilot research could be undertaken to ascertain the specific self-regulatory problem (e.g., by asking a sub-sample to list problems they encountered during previous attempts to reach the goal). Both of these approaches proved informative in Sheeran et al.’s (in press) study of non-attendance for psychotherapy; these researchers obtained qualitative studies that investigated people’s reasons for not keeping their psychotherapy appointment and they also undertook interviews with small samples of clients who attended versus did not attend an appointment that they had been given. Two other possibilities are to invite participants to nominate what they perceive as the most pressing problem for them personally, or to generate a list of self-regulatory problems and ask participants to select the problems that they most want to manage (Achtziger, Gollwitzer, & Sheeran, 2007).
Selecting An Effective Response and Suitable Occasion
Once the self-regulatory problem has been identified, the next step is to select (a) a response that is effective in dealing with this problem, and (b) a suitable occasion to initiate that response. That is, an implementation intention should specify a cognitive or behavioral response that is instrumental for obtaining the goal in the then-part of the plan, and specify an opportune moment to execute that response in the if-part of the plan. For instance to reach the goal of obtaining screening for cervical cancer, the plan might be, "If it is [time and place specified by participant], then I will [participant specifies how they will make an appointment, e.g., by phone]!" (Sheeran & Orbell, 2000). Selecting a suitable occasion to enact a goal-directed response involves anticipating a situation where it would be fitting to execute the goal-directed response. The occasion or critical situation specified in the if-part of the plan could be either an internal cue (e.g., a strong feeling) or an external cue (e.g., a particular place, object, person, or point in time). The critical situation can be suitable or fitting either because it represents a feasible opportunity to act (i.e., it is easy to execute the goal-directed response at this moment) or because the situation represents an anticipated obstacle to goal striving that needs to be overcome in order to reach the goal (Oettingen, Park,& Schnetter, 2001).
Selecting a goal-directed response involves anticipating how to make progress towards one’s goal by dealing effectively with key self-regulatory problems en route to goal attainment. Because for any given goal various routes to goal attainment are possible (Kruglanski et al., 2002), it follows that the specification of the then-part of the implementation intention can take many different forms. For instance, the then-part of a plan could specify enacting one of the many behaviors that lead to goal attainment, or specify ignoring those stimuli that engender unwanted responses and thereby threaten goal attainment. In addition, the specification of the goal-directed response could focus on either the initiation of goal striving or the maintenance of an ongoing goal pursuit. Thus, the if- and then-parts of implementation intentions can be used to resolve self-regulatory problems in goal striving in three ways (a) by promoting the initiation of goal striving and thus circumventing problems in failing to get started and getting derailed prematurely, (b) by stabilizing goal striving in order to ensure that unwanted influences do not derail goal striving, and (c) by shielding goal striving from anticipated obstacles that could send goal striving off track.
Table 1 provides examples of possible implementation intentions that exemplify the various dimensions of the if-parts and then-parts of plans outlined above, and illustrate how different self-regulatory problems might be handled effectively. For instance, Example 1 (And if it is 5pm on Monday, then I will jog home from work!) specifies an external cue (a time and place) in the if-part of the plan and the initiation of a goal-directed behavior in order to aid remembering to act and make progress towards the goal of increasing physical activity. Example 5 (And if I have walked up one flight of stairs and see the elevator, I tell myself ‘I can do it! I can take the stairs all of the way up to my office!’) also specifies an external cue, but here the cue threatens to send goal striving off track (one might be tempted to take the elevator in this situation). The then-part of the implementation intention is therefore geared at stabilising goal striving (by specifying self-talk that enhances self-efficacy at the critical juncture; see Bayer & Gollwitzer, 2007) in order to emancipate the goal of increasing physical activity from the influence of unwanted (sedentary) habits. Finally, in Example 4, the if-part of the plan specifies an internal cue (And if I start thinking about my favorite snack…) and the then-part of the plan specifies an ignore response (…then I immediately ignore that thought!) in order to meet the goal of reducing one’s intake of high-fat snacks. This critical situation and goal-directed response are specified because evidence indicates that preventing people from elaborating desire thoughts is effective in shielding dieting goals from unwanted attention responses (see Achtziger et al., 2007). Three further issues need to be addressed concerning the formation of effective implementation intentions.
Precision, Multiple Implementation Intentions, and Format
First is the issue of precision in selecting the if-parts and then-parts of implementation intentions. If-then planning may not be very effective if relevant opportunities and responses are not specified precisely. For example, a plan that specifies "exercise more" in the then-part of the plan and "tomorrow" in the if-part has not spelled out an unambiguous opportunity to act or a specific goal-directed response to initiate—the person still has to identify a particular behavior to perform in a particular situation to facilitate goal achievement (e.g., "If it is 5pm on Monday, then I will job home from work!"). Having to thus deliberate about when, where, and what to do in situ means that the person is unlikely to garner the benefits of enhanced accessibility of critical cues and automation of responding that is conferred by forming precise if-then plans; the person seems no better off than having merely formed the goal intention to "exercise more tomorrow." Second, and related, is the issue of forming multiple implementation intentions. To achieve complex goals, the person may need to perform manifold behaviors and so face numerous self-regulatory problems. In such instances, it may be useful to form more than one if-then plan. Provided the components of the plan are precise (i.e., deliberation about appropriate opportunities and responses is not required in situ), viable (i.e., the specified situations will be encountered, the specified responses can be executed), instrumental (i.e., the specified situation permits action, the specified response facilitates goal achievement), and non-overlapping (i.e., different responses are not specified in relation to the same cue, specified responses do not conflict), then the formation of multiple implementation intentions should prove helpful in promoting goal attainment (see Achtziger et al., 2007; Murgraff, White, & Phillips, 1997, for empirical examples).
Third and last is the issue of the format of implementation intentions. If-then plans, by definition, have a contingent format. The importance of using an if-then format in wording the plan was demonstrated by Oettingen, Hönig, and Gollwitzer (2000, Study 3). All participants were provided with diskettes containing four concentration tasks and were asked to perform these tasks on their computers each Wednesday morning for the next four weeks. Participants in the control condition were asked to indicate what time they would perform the task by responding to the statement "I will perform as many arithmetic tasks as possible each Wednesday at _____ (self-chosen time before noon)." Participants in the implementation intention condition, on the other hand, indicated their chosen time by responding to the statement "If it is Wednesday at _____ (self-chosen time before noon), then I will perform as many arithmetic tasks as possible!" The programme on the diskette recorded the time that participants started to work on the task from the clock on participants’ computers. Despite the apparent similarity between the control and implementation intention instructions, the conditional structure of the implementation intention had a dramatic impact on how closely participants performed the task to their intended time indicating that using the defining if-then format in implementation intention inductions is important to ensure strong implementation intention effects.
Finally, one might wonder what happens if for any reason people fail to enact their implementation intentions: Is the person then less able to continue goal striving compared to having formed a mere goal intention. Recent evidence suggests that because implementation intentions conserve regulatory capacity (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006), people are in a better – not worse – position to continue goal striving. For instance, implementation intention participants whose goal of visiting a website was blocked (the website had been taken off the net) actually showed more frequent subsequent attempts to get through compared to mere goal intention participants. In fact, evidence indicates that people who form implementation intentions not only make more frequent attempts to reach the goal when their path is blocked, they also make higher quality and more strenuous attempts to overcome the blockage (Gollwitzer, Parks-Stamm, Jaudas, & Sheeran, 2007; Martijn et al., 2008). Thus, fears that blockage of the execution of an if-then plan handicaps continued goal striving would seem unfounded.