One Simple Tool to Create Actionable Goals

Do you ever feel like you’re spinning your wheels, setting ambitious goals but struggling to make progress?

You’re not alone.

Many of us grapple with the challenge of turning our aspirations into tangible achievements. That’s why I would like to share with you one effective tool that can help you make meaningful and measurable progress on your goals: Implementation Intentions.

Let’s say that — like many people — you want to make a habit of exercising consistently. Researchers have discovered that while many people are motivated to workout, the people who actually stick to their goals do one thing very differently from everyone else.

In 2001, researchers in Great Britain began working with 248 people to build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. The subjects were divided into three groups.

The first group was the control group. They were simply asked to track how often they exercised.

The second group was the “motivation” group. They were asked not only to track their workouts but also to read some material on the benefits of exercise. The researchers also explained to the group how exercise could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and improve heart health.

Finally, there was the third group. These subjects received the same presentation as the second group, which ensured that they had equal levels of motivation. However, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week.

Specifically, each member of the third group completed the following sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

Motivation vs. Intention

In the first and second groups, 35 to 38 percent of people exercised at least once per week. But 91 percent of the third group exercised at least once per week—more than double the normal rate.

Simply by writing down a plan that said exactly when and where they intended to exercise, the participants in Group 3 were much more likely to actually follow through.

So one way this can be utilized is by reframing our goals in such a way that takes away ambiguity by being adding a layer of specificity and intentionality.

Reframing Ambiguity

Consider a few of these common goals.

  • “I want to read more.”
  • “I want to get into better shape.”
  • “I want to learn a new language.”
  • “I want to be more present with my family.”

While these goals are admirable, they unfortunately lack specificity. To solve this issue, we can remove the ambiguity by creating actionable steps by asking yourself: When will I do this? Where will I do it? What exactly will I do?

Let’s apply the concept of Implementation Intentions to the previously mentioned goals:

  • “I want to read more”
    Tomorrow morning, I will read 5 pages in the living room while I have my coffee.
  • “I want to get into better shape”
    I will go for a 10 minute walk around my neighbor before breakfast.
  • “I want to learn a new language”
    During my lunch tomorrow, I am going to learn 10 new words in my target language”
  • “I want to be more present with my family”
    Every evening when I come home from work, I am going to plug-in my phone in the bedroom so I will not be distracted during family time.

These are just a few examples of how you can approach your goals with more intentionality. Go ahead and try this exercise with at least on goal that you currently have and see if you can strip away any ambiguity by giving yourself a specific task you can complete with a time, place, and action.

A Personal Example

In the spirit of transparency, I’ll share with you one way that I am currently implementing this strategy to help me follow-through with accomplishing a goal.

This year, one of my goals is to complete a marathon.

On the surface, this goal may not seem too vague or ambiguous. After all, once I choose which race I am going to do, I already have my “when”, “where”, and “what”.

When: June 2, 2024
Where: San Diego
What: Run 26.2 miles

However, the problem lays with the marathon training.

When will I do each run. Where will I do them? What pace should I aim for?

So, with the assistance of a training plan, at the beginning of each week I set the intention for each run. I pick the days I will execute a run, how many miles I will do, figure out what pace I will aim for, and plan where I will complete each run.

So far, approaching my training in this manner has proven to be extremely effective in helping me follow-through with each run.

Following Through

To summarize, Implementation Intentions are a simple yet effective strategy for turning aspirations into achievements. By adding specificity and intentionality to your goals, you will increase your chances of follow-through and success.

So, why not give it a try?

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