Making intentions concrete—Trigger-Action Planning

I’ll do it at some point.

I’ll an­swer this mes­sage later.

I could try this some­time.

For most peo­ple, all of these thoughts have the same re­sult. The thing in ques­tion likely never gets done—or if it does, it’s only af­ter re­main­ing un­done for a long time and caus­ing a con­sid­er­able amount of stress. Leav­ing the “when” am­bigu­ous means that there isn’t any­thing that would pro­pel you into ac­tion.

What kinds of thoughts would help avoid this prob­lem? Here are some ex­am­ples:

  • When I find my­self us­ing the words “later” or “at some point”, I’ll de­cide on a spe­cific time when I’ll ac­tu­ally do it.

  • If I’m given a task that would take un­der five min­utes, and I’m not in a press­ing rush, I’ll do it right away.

  • When I no­tice that I’m get­ting stressed out about some­thing that I’ve left un­done, I’ll ei­ther do it right away or de­cide when I’ll do it.

Pick­ing a spe­cific time or situ­a­tion to serve as the trig­ger of the ac­tion makes it much more likely that it ac­tu­ally gets done.
Could we ap­ply this more gen­er­ally? Let’s con­sider these ex­am­ples:
  • I’m go­ing to get more ex­er­cise.

  • I’ll spend less money on shoes.

  • I want to be nicer to peo­ple.

Th­ese goals all have the same prob­lem: they’re vague. How will you ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment them? As long as you don’t know, you’re also go­ing to miss po­ten­tial op­por­tu­ni­ties to act on them.
Let’s try again:
  • When I see stairs, I’ll climb them in­stead of tak­ing the ele­va­tor.

  • When I buy shoes, I’ll write down how much money I’ve spent on shoes this year.

  • When some­one does some­thing that I like, I’ll thank them for it.

Th­ese are much bet­ter. They con­tain both a con­crete ac­tion to be taken, and a clear trig­ger for when to take it.
Turn­ing vague goals into trig­ger-ac­tion plans
Trig­ger-ac­tion plans (TAPs; known as “im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions” in the aca­demic liter­a­ture) are “when-then” (“if-then”, for you pro­gram­mers) rules used for be­hav­ior mod­ifi­ca­tion [i]. A meta-anal­y­sis cov­er­ing 94 stud­ies and 8461 sub­jects [ii] found them to im­prove peo­ple’s abil­ity for achiev­ing their goals [iii]. The goals in ques­tion in­cluded ones such as re­duc­ing the amount of fat in one’s diet, get­ting ex­er­cise, us­ing vi­tamin sup­ple­ments, car­ry­ing on with a bor­ing task, de­ter­mi­na­tion to work on challeng­ing prob­lems, and call­ing out racist com­ments. Many stud­ies also al­lowed the sub­jects to set their own, per­sonal goals.
TAPs were found to work both in lab­o­ra­tory and real-life set­tings. The au­thors of the meta-anal­y­sis es­ti­mated the risk of pub­li­ca­tion bias to be small, as half of the stud­ies in­cluded were un­pub­lished ones.
De­sign­ing TAPs
TAPs work be­cause they help us no­tice situ­a­tions where we could carry out our in­ten­tions. They also help au­to­mate the in­ten­tions: when a per­son is in a situ­a­tion that matches the trig­ger, they are much more likely to carry out the ac­tion. Fi­nally, they force us to turn vague and am­bigu­ous goals into more spe­cific ones.
A good TAP fulfills three re­quire­ments [iv]:
  • The trig­ger is clear. The “when” part is a spe­cific, visi­ble thing that’s easy to no­tice. “When I see stairs” is good, “be­fore four o’clock” is bad (when be­fore four ex­actly?). [v]

  • The trig­ger is con­sis­tent. The ac­tion is some­thing that you’ll always want to do when the trig­ger is fulfilled. “When I leave the kitchen, I’ll do five push-ups” is bad, be­cause you might not have the chance to do five push-ups each time when you leave the kitchen. [vi]

  • The TAP fur­thers your goals. Make sure the TAP is ac­tu­ally use­ful!

How­ever, there is one group of peo­ple who may need to be cau­tious about us­ing TAPs. One pa­per [vii] found that peo­ple who ranked highly on so-called so­cially pre­scribed perfec­tion­ism did worse on their goals when they used TAPs. Th­ese kinds of peo­ple are sen­si­tive to other peo­ple’s opinions about them, and are of­ten highly crit­i­cal of them­selves. Be­cause TAPs cre­ate an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween a situ­a­tion and a de­sired way of be­hav­ing, it may make so­cially pre­scribed perfec­tion­ists anx­ious and self-crit­i­cal. In two stud­ies, TAPs made col­lege stu­dents who were so­cially pre­scribed perfec­tion­ists (and only them) worse at achiev­ing their goals.
For ev­ery­one else how­ever, I recom­mend adopt­ing this TAP:
When I set my­self a goal, I’ll turn it into a TAP.
Ori­gin note
This ar­ti­cle was origi­nally pub­lished in Fin­nish at ke­hi­ It draws heav­ily on CFAR’s ma­te­rial, par­tic­u­larly the work­book from CFAR’s Novem­ber 2014 work­shop.

[i] Gol­lwitzer, P. M. (1999). Im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions: strong effects of sim­ple plans. Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist, 54(7), 493.

[ii] Gol­lwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions and goal achieve­ment: A meta‐anal­y­sis of effects and pro­cesses. Ad­vances in ex­per­i­men­tal so­cial psy­chol­ogy, 38, 69-119.
[iii] Effect size d = .65, 95% con­fi­dence in­ter­val [.6, .7].
[iv] Gol­lwitzer, P. M., Wie­ber, F., My­ers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2010). How to max­i­mize im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tion effects. Then a mir­a­cle oc­curs: Fo­cus­ing on be­hav­ior in so­cial psy­cholog­i­cal the­ory and re­search, 137-161.
[v] Wie­ber, Oden­thal & Gol­lwitzer (2009; un­pub­lished study, dis­cussed in [iv]) tested the effect of gen­eral and spe­cific TAPs on sub­jects driv­ing a simu­lated car. All sub­jects were given the goal of finish­ing the course as quickly as pos­si­ble, while also dam­ag­ing their car as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. Sub­jects in the “gen­eral” group were ad­di­tion­ally given the TAP, “If I en­ter a dan­ger­ous situ­a­tion, then I will im­me­di­ately adapt my speed”. Sub­jects in the “spe­cific” group were given the TAP, “If I see a black and white curve road sign, then I will im­me­di­ately adapt my speed”. Sub­jects with the spe­cific TAP man­aged to dam­age their cars less than the sub­jects with the gen­eral TAP, with­out be­ing any slower for it.
[vi] Wie­ber, Gol­lwitzer, et al. (2009; un­pub­lished study, dis­cussed in [iv]) tested whether TAPs could be made even more effec­tive by turn­ing them into an “if-then-be­cause” form: “when I see stairs, I’ll use them in­stead of tak­ing the ele­va­tor, be­cause I want to be­come more fit”. The re­sults showed that the “be­cause” rea­sons in­creased the sub­jects’ mo­ti­va­tion to achieve their goals, but nev­er­the­less made TAPs less effec­tive.
The re­searchers spec­u­lated that the “be­cause” might have changed the mind­set of the sub­jects. While an “if-then” rule causes peo­ple to au­to­mat­i­cally do some­thing, “if-then-be­cause” leads peo­ple to re­flect upon their mo­ti­vates and takes them from an im­ple­men­ta­tive mind­set to a de­liber­a­tive one. Fol­low-up stud­ies test­ing the effect of im­ple­men­ta­tive vs. de­liber­a­tive mind­sets on TAPs seemed to sup­port this in­ter­pre­ta­tion. This sug­gests that TAPs are likely to work bet­ter if they can be car­ried out as con­sis­tently and as with lit­tle thought as pos­si­ble.
[vii] Pow­ers, T. A., Koest­ner, R., & Top­ciu, R. A. (2005). Im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions, perfec­tion­ism, and goal progress: Per­haps the road to hell is paved with good in­ten­tions. Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Bul­letin, 31(7), 902-912.