The clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, and magically we are to be a changed being, living by a new set of rules that promises a life as an improved human. This set of self-inflicted rules is often unattainable or overwhelming. A new year brings a fresh perspective and opportunity for 12 new glorious chapters to make different or better decisions for health, work, priorities, and relationships.
As we enter into this new year, many of us are on full throttle towards accomplishing resolutions. We go to bed with high hopes of treadmill running and healthy eating on the radar for the next day. “This is the year that I can make it all happen. This year will be different.” As the first several weeks of the new year quickly pass, why does it often seem this fresh motivation deflates, and suddenly we fall back into old habits?
Dental professionals seem to bring a certain level of drive to the table that keeps us teetering between perfectionistic habits and achieving our goals. This drive shows up in the operatory and personal lives. We often push ourselves to achieve an unrealistic perfection that results in being paralyzed by procrastination. The loss of motivation and drive to continue a new standard or behavior can quickly fizzle. Waiting around for its return can be frustrating and disappointing.
Motivation may have little to do with carrying out New Year’s resolutions or any other newly sought-after behavior or habit. Keeping promises to ourselves boils down to planning and strategizing more than waiting around to be struck by motivation. Though several life factors can influence difficulty living out resolutions, a simple goal-directing task may keep you on track towards your desired transformations.
One evidence-backed, habit-building tactic is called implementation intentions. This is where you identify “if-then” plans that define when and where your actions will take place in order to propel you towards the finish line.
One research study showed that when exercisers were given motivational material, they worked out 3% less than the control group that was given none. The third, or experimental group, used implementation intentions and increased their exercise rate by 56% more than the “motivated” group. The simple act of writing down when and where they would exercise kept them on target.1
The idea of implementation intentions was first introduced into psychology in the late 1980s and 1990s by Dr. Peter Gollwitzer. He notes that “good intentions get a bad reputation” as people tend to bite off more than they can chew when pursuing change or new goals. He set out to find a strategy to turn intentions into accomplishments.
By creating structure such as “I intend to reach x by doing y,” nonbinding desires can be transformed into a committed contract with self. What seems like a simple task of writing down when and where an activity will be carried out has a strong impact on the outcome.2
A Trainer’s Focus on Bite-Sized Steps
Danielle Shearon, SFG, SFB, is certified by Precision Nutrition certified, a strength/fitness trainer for StrongFirst, and the owner of Prevail Strength and Fitness in Edmond, Oklahoma. She states that motivation is misunderstood. It comes in waves, and if we wait around for motivation to strike, we may never even start or quickly give up the new behavior. She often works with clients that will fall off the fitness wagon as soon as that spark of motivation from the new year has started to flicker out.
As a trainer who takes a practical approach to wellness, Shearon has found that after setting end-game goals with clients, breaking it down to offer a bite-sized methodology keeps her students focused.
She said, “When students have a zero to hero approach or look ahead too far into the future, they lose sight of where they are going. Sean (her husband) and I want to offer realistic, attainable, and sustainable goals that keep people moving. If they can step foot into the gym today, goal accomplished. We don’t recommend waiting around on motivation to climb the mountain. Maybe today, just putting on their shoes and walking in the doors was all they had. We honor and celebrate that. You have to take one step at a time to get up the mountain. Instead of all or none, we encourage forward progress even if it is only 1%, 10% or 20% improvement.”
When I asked her about her thoughts on implementation intentions, she said she believes it is absolutely necessary for success. She said, “It may feel impossible to say that I am going to lose 40 pounds, but it feels doable to say I am going to walk one mile today at 5 pm. This attitude leaves us with a win for the day and maybe even motivation for tomorrow in the tank.”3
Establishing Your Intentions
Whether you have your eye on a personal weight loss goal, want to increase your daily hygiene production, or practice better self-care during the workday, implementation intentions can help you inch toward success. Here is how it works:
- Consider your overarching goal and write it down. An example would be, “This year, I will take better care of myself during the workday.”
- Clarify what “taking better care of myself” means. This may include drinking more water between patients, stopping to use the restroom more often, or eating lunch and snacks during the workday.
- Dissect these goals even further by quantifying your planned actions: “I will drink 80 ounces of water each day,” “I will use the restroom after every third patient,” or “I will prepare my lunches ahead of time for the week.”
- Now for the implementation intentions: Identify and journal the time and place these new habits will take place. For example, you may write down, “I will keep two liter-sized bottles of water in my 12:00 cabinet and drink each time I finish turning my operatory.” This gives you a specific time and place in which you will achieve this goal. You have now set your intentions and made this goal attainable. You do not need to feel motivated to drink water all day; you simply need to fill the bottles and carry out your intention. At the end of the workday, you will be well on your way to 80 ounces of water. The new habit starts with filling the water bottles. Once you have taken that step, your brain is primed for action.
Setting implementation intention goals may increase self-efficacy, which means that making when and where statements can increase the likelihood of achieving goals by reducing perceived barriers.4. As you look at your goals for the new year, consider how you can incorporate implementation intentions to specifically define the when and where of the activity. Take the time for this simple self-care act as you embark on new adventures in behavior change and self-improvement.
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- Milne, S., Orbell, S., Sheeran, P. Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. British Journal of Health Psychology. 2002 May; 7(Pt 2): 163-84.
- Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999, July). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist.
- Shearon, D. (2021). Personal Interview. Prevail Fitness, Edmond, OK.
- Robinson, S., Bisson, A., Hughes, M., Ebert, J., Lachman, M. Time for change: using implementation intentions to promote physical activity in a randomized pilot trial. Psychology & Health. 2019; 34(2): 232-254.