I know my title is probably hard to believe. However, research done over the past 13 years by Gollwitzer and many others has shown that it’s actually possible to create instant habits by using a very specific kind of simple plan.
This simple plan is called an “implementation intention” by scientists like Gollwitzer and has been proven effective in a variety of domains from helping students study during Christmas break, to getting women to do regular breast self-exams, to taking medication regularly.
But because the term “implementation intentions” is kind of a mouthful, let’s use a variation of the term Chip and Dan Heath used in their book Switch and call them “verbal action triggers.”
So what is a verbal action trigger? It’s an if-then plan you use to connect a specific cue to a specific behavior. For example, I created the following action trigger for myself “If I sit down at my desk, then I start writing my next post.”
It’s a great way to get yourself to do a specific task that you want to do right now but it’s real power is it’s ability to get you to engage in new habits practically overnight.
In one study 114 adults who had a heart attack were put into two groups to see how well verbal action triggers might affect their level of physical activity.
One group was given instruction in how to use verbal action triggers, another group was not given this instruction.
Both groups were given short-term rehabilitation of about 8 weeks and were told that they should continue to exercise on their own 3 times a week.
Eight months later only the group taught verbal action triggers maintained the recommended level of exercise. The other group’s activity level had dropped off sharply.
So now that you know that this technique works, I’ll give you some specific instructions on how to use it as well as a caveat that explains why it won’t always work.
Here are the instructions:
1. Pick a goal. It can be as simple as getting a top grade in a math class. Or getting into physical shape.
2. Pick a specific action that will help you achieve your goal. For exercise it might be to go to the gym.
3. Pick a specific cue that tells you when to engage in the action. You might decide that when you leave work is the best time to get to the gym.
4. Put the cue and the behavior into an “if-then” statement. For the example above “If I leave work, then I go to the gym.”
What you’ll find is that when the time comes you are more likely to remember the goal and more likely to take the action specified in your verbal action trigger.
Now here’s the caveat: It won’t always work. In every study there are some people that didn’t respond to the verbal action triggers. Other studies have been done to find out what make this technique work more often.
Here are some guidelines from the research that can increase your chances of success.
1. Make sure that you believe you can take the action you are specifying. The research shows that your belief in your abilities affects the likelihood of a verbal action trigger helping you. If you don’t think you could ever go to the gym straight after work, this technique won’t help you do that. So find a behavior you believe you can do at least once.
2. Make sure you are committed to your goal. It’s OK if your commitment is an “I have to” commitment as opposed to an “I choose to” commitment. The research shows you’ll get the same results either way. But if you are not committed at all and just don’t care about the goal, you won’t get results. You can increase your commitment to your goal with a technique called Mental Contrasting which I wrote about in my last post.
3. The strength of the mental connection made by the if-then plan is important. So if you make up the statement on the fly while distracted by other things the link may not be strong enough. So repeating the statement it several times in a quiet place where you can concentrate can be helpful. Also visualizing yourself responding to the plan in the third person has found to make the connection much stronger.
With these three tips, you’ll be much more likely to benefit from verbal action triggers. Since they take so little time and so little effort to use, you may as well try them several times to see when they do and do not work for you.
So will you use this technique today? Consider forming an if-then plan then writing about it below.