Creating Lasting Habits with the IMPI Strategy

According to psychological research only 53% of peoples’ goals are actually translated into action.

A measly 53%.

Why is this the case?

Professor of Psychology at New York University, Dr Peter Gollwitzer, believes that there are a number of things that derail us from achieving our goals.

We may find ourselves being distracted by Facebook and email, overwhelmed with negative thoughts or perhaps we just can’t seem to get started (i.e. we procrastinate).

So what’s missing from goal setting? IMPI is missing.

IMPI is short for implementation intentions.

Most people either gawk or their eyes glaze over when I say the term “implementation intention”. I know, it sounds awfully academic and a bit scary. So for the sake of this blog post, I’ll just refer to this strategy as “IMPI” (plural: IMPIs)

What is an IMPI?

IMPIs are different from goals in that they specify the when, where and how of a goal. They are particularly good to use for achieving unpleasant goals and goals that are easy to forget.

Here’s how they work –

Whilst a goal typically take the form of “I will do X”, an IMPI takes the form of an “If-then” plan (“If situation Y arises, then I will do X”).

For example, if I have the following goal of “I will not eat sugar”, then I could set an IMPI of “If I am offered some sugary food, then I will firmly say no thank you”.

Basically, IMPIs are just pre-decisions that make the desired behaviour (e.g. not eating sugar) automatic when a particular situation arises. They stops you from having to expend mental energy thinking “Do I have the donut or not? Looks kind of tasty but I really shouldn’t….”

Dr Gollwitzer states –

“The idea is that people do not have to deliberate anymore about when and how they should act when they have formed an implementation intention [i.e. IMPI]”

Research indicates that IMPIs can help us act quickly, deal effectively with cognitive demands and significantly increase the likelihood of taking action on goals.

In one experiment, students were asked to write a report during their holidays about how they spent their Christmas. The students who set an IMPI to complete this task (i.e. they specified when, where and how they would get started on the report) were 3 times more likely to write the report than students who just set a goal (e.g. “I will write the report over the holidays”).

Other studies have shown that IMPIs are effective for helping people to lose weight, manage their time, recycle, perform better on academic tasks and deal with negative self talk.

For too long teachers and self help gurus have been telling us the power of setting goals whilst overlooking the obvious – that most of us have trouble just getting started and taking action towards our goals.

IMPIs are a simple and effective way to help you get in action without much thought and effort being required.

One thing I really want to stress is that impis are more than just deciding on a time and day when you’re going to perform a certain behaviour. Studies have actually found that the particular “If-then” format of the sentence is critical to the effectiveness of the IMPI strategy.

If you’re still having trouble getting your head around the IMPI strategy, here are some examples:

  • For healthy eating: “If I am hungry and need a snack, then I will eat a piece of fruit”
  • For study: “If I start a new task, then I will tell myself: I can solve this task!”
  • For being more focused: “If I have to study, then I will lock myself out of Facebook and close the door”
  • For dealing with difficult people: “If Joe approaches me with an outrageous request, then I’ll respond in a polite and friendly way”
  • For sports performance: “If I start to feel nervous, then I will take a few deep breaths”
  • I challenge you to choose a behaviour you want to change or perhaps a new years resolutions that you have given up on and to set an IMPI (“If-then” plan) to help you accomplish it.

    2 thoughts on “Creating Lasting Habits with the IMPI Strategy

    1. Hi Jane, This is really good. I teach goal setting as part of my study skills camp but have not thought of IMPI. From now on, my students are going to do the IMPI exercise. Thanks a lot. Do take a look at our website and see if we could do some work together. I am open to possibilities.


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