Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success

We all have goals. And what’s the first thing most of us think about when we consider how to achieve them?

“I need to get motivated.”

The surprising thing? Motivation is exactly what you don’t need. Today, I’m going to share a surprising research study that reveals why motivation isn’t the key to achieving your goals and offers a simple strategy that actually works.

The best part? This highly practical strategy has been scientifically proven to double or even triple your chances for success.

Here’s what you need to know and how you can apply it to your life…

How to Make Exercise a Habit

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 (i.e. they have the desire to workout and get fit), the people who actually stick to their goals do one thing very differently from everyone else.

Here’s how researchers discovered the “one thing” that makes it more likely for you to stick to your goals…

In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers measured how frequently people exercised over a 2–week period.

The researchers started by randomly assigning 248 adults to one of three groups.

Group 1 was the control group. They were asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Before they left, each person was asked to read the opening three paragraphs of an unrelated novel.

Group 2 was the motivation group. They were also asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Then, each person was asked to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise for reducing the risk of heart disease. Participants in Group 2 were also told, “Most young adults who have stuck to a regular exercise program have found it to be very effective in reducing their chances of developing coronary heart disease.”

The goal of these actions was to motivate Group 2 to exercise regularly.

Group 3 was the intention group. After being told to track their exercise, they also read the motivational pamphlet and got the same speech as Group 2. This was done to ensure that Group 2 and Group 3 were equally motivated.

Unlike Group 2, however, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. Specifically, each person in Group 3 was asked to explicitly state their intention to exercise by completing the following statement…

During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].

After receiving these instructions, all three groups left.

The Surprising Results: Motivation vs. Intention

Two weeks later, the researchers were surprised by what had happened in the three groups.

  • In the control group, 38% of participants exercised at least once per week.
  • In the motivation group, 35% of participants exercised at least once per week.
  • In the intention group, an incredible 91% of participants exercised at least once per week.

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.

implementation intentions and exercise
A study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91% people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. Meanwhile, people who read motivational material about exercise, but did not plan when and where they would exercise, showed no increase compared to the control group. (Graphic by James Clear.)

Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that having a specific plan worked really well, but motivation didn’t work at all. Group 1 (the control group) and Group 2 (the motivation group) performed essentially the same levels of exercise.

Or, as the researchers put it, “Motivation … had no significant effects on exercise behavior.”

Compare these results to how most people talk about making change and achieving goals. Words like motivation, willpower, and desire get tossed around a lot. But the truth is, we all have these things to some degree. If you want to make a change at all, then you have some level of “desire.”

The researchers discovered that what pulls that desire out of you and turns it into real–world action isn’t your level of motivation, but rather your plan for implementation.

How to Follow Through With Your Goals

Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success.
—Heidi Grant Halvorson, Columbia University professor

This business about planning your actions and achieving your goals isn’t a random, one–time research discovery.

For example, similar studies have found that…

  • Women who stated when and where they would perform a breast self–examination, did it 100% of the time. Meanwhile, those who didn’t state when and where only performed the exam 53% of the time.1
  • Dieters who formulated a plan for when and how they would eat healthier were significantly more likely to eat healthy than those who did not.2
  • People who wrote down when and where they would take their vitamins each day were less likely to miss a day over a five week span than those who did not.3

In fact, over 100 separate studies in a wide range of experimental situations have come to the same conclusion: people who explicitly state when and where their new behaviors are going to happen are much more likely to stick to their goals.

You can apply this strategy to almost any goal you can think of, and certainly to most health goals. For example, if you want to start a daily meditation habit this month, then you’ll be more likely to stick to your goal if you plan out when and where you’ll meditate each day.

What to Do When Plans Fall Apart

The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.
—Robert Burns

Sometimes you won’t be able to implement a new behavior — no matter how perfect your plan. In situations like these, it’s great to use the “if–then” version of this strategy.

You’re still stating your intention to perform a particular behavior, so the basic idea is the same. This time, however, you simply plan for unexpected situations by using the phrase, “If ____, then ____.”

For example…

  • If I eat fast food for lunch, then I’ll stop by the store and buy some vegetables for dinner.
  • If I haven’t called my mom back by 7pm, then I won’t turn on the TV until I do.
  • If my meeting runs over and I don’t have time to workout this afternoon, then I’ll wake up early tomorrow and run.

The “if–then” strategy gives you a clear plan for overcoming the unexpected stuff, which means it’s less likely that you’ll be swept away by the urgencies of life. You can’t control when little emergencies happen to you, but you don’t have to be a victim of them either.

Use This Strategy to Achieve Your Goals

If you don’t plan out your behaviors, then you rely on your willpower and motivation to inspire you to act. But if you do plan out when and where you are going to perform a new behavior, your goal has a time and a space to live in the real world. This shift in perspective allows your environment to act as a cue for your new behavior.

To put it simply: planning out when and where you will perform a specific behavior turns your environment into a trigger for action. The time and place triggers your behavior, not your level of motivation.

This strategy ties in nicely with the research I’ve shared about how habits work, why you need to schedule your goals, and the difference between professionals and amateurs. (For a complete discussion on habit formation, check out this free guide I put together on transforming your habits.)

So what’s the moral of this story?

Motivation is short lived and doesn’t lead to consistent action. If you want to achieve your goals, then you need a plan for exactly when and how you’re going to execute on them.

References:
1. Breast self–examination study.
2. Healthy diet study.
3. Vitamin study.
4. If you’re interested, you can find an analysis of 94 “implementation intention” studies here.

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21 Comments

  1. James,

    It’s your plan! Yes.

    I gotta say that I was initially motivated by heart issues to begin a more rigorous execise and diet program. And if I relied on that it certainly wouldn’t have lasted!

    But it was the active small (and growing) steps, the minor shifts in diet, making time for this by setting it as a priority in my life, and doing what I’m able to do and enjoy that’s made all the difference. It allowed me to gain success. That was the driving force that replaced the initial motive.

    Been hitting it for over a year now. And it’s being consistent in following my plan that has now resulted in the feeling that I’m missing something major, something enjoyable, something life giving, if I miss even a day. It’s now, for example, as important to my life as sleep.

    Thanks James. Excellent as usual!

    • Garry — this is awesome. Keep up the great work. I’m excited to hear about you keeping the streak alive and continuing to live healthy!

  2. Wow! The power of intention. Planning is so important, a step we often forget, and we often fall off the beam. Similar to this, I have been writing down my action steps backwards from the goal I want to reach to the start of my plan and have found it really helpful.. Making the if ..and then…plan is brilliant…gonna start that today.

    Planning….yes, great post and the power of intention is amazing! Hope you are enjoying that book…

    Thank you, James for another great article.

    • Kim — Thanks for reading! I hope the If-Then planning works out well for you. Can’t wait to hear about your progress.

      p.s. I am enjoying the book! Thanks!

  3. Great advice, James.

    I wonder how I could translate this into getting me out of bed in time to go to the gym on these cold, wintery mornings (I’m from Australia)? Perhaps the ‘If… Then…’ Method would work: if I don’t go to the gym now, I’ll have to go after work when I’m just as tired but also hungry!

    But seriously, great advice. I’ve always found that if I make a plan, say at the start of the week, I’m able to fulfill at least 80% of my commitments. If I leave it up in the air, then it’s more like 0%.

    • Brodie — thanks for sharing. I think your 80% vs. 0% isn’t too far off from what most of us actually encounter.

      Keep up the good work! Hopefully, the If-Then planning works out well for you.

  4. All very true! I have a gym habit that goes: 2 hours Tuesday, 1 hour Thurs, 1 hour Fri, and the possibility of another in addition to all that. Plus gardening in the summer. With diet, it’s the same idea: the meal choices are made when I shop and I very rarely go near the biscuits, chocolate and other junk food aisles. These are both intentions that have become habits.

    It has taken most of my lifetime to get such results though. For decades the Tony Robbins-style “motivation-style” methods were the Holy Grail. At a 3-day “workshop” with him I remember him exhorting us to actually feel so bad we’d sob quietly (3’000 people in a huge hall) about not being super-rich! The intense emotion was supposed to mark us so severely that on leaving the workshop we’d get fit and become millionaires, etc etc. Sounded like BS at the time, and today we know it is.

    Thanks, James, for the voice of reason! Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Penelope! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      And I love your examples. Keep building those good habits. It sounds like you’ve already made a lot of progress and I can’t wait to hear about what you do next!

  5. Hey James,

    Great article!

    I can attest for the power of planning. This is actually how I started running this season:

    1) Scheduled the day 2 weeks in advance
    2) The night before set all the equipment next to my bed: bottle of water, clothing, smarthphone with playlist set up and nike+ app installed.
    3) Afternoon before my scheduled run I walked through the track I planned to run to familiarize with the environment, actually visualized at certain locations how I will be running through them the next morning.

    Made a whole process a breeze, didn’t even matter that there was still snow outside :))

    However, I would like to point out one aspect from the study that can be a bit misleading.

    Motivation is a very personal thing, something that motivates me might have no effect on you and vice versa.

    Personally, if I would read a pamphlet on how exercising has a positive effect on health, it would do nothing to increase my desire to exercise. I’d probably order a beer while I’m reading it :)

    However, if I would read a handwritten paragraph from someone I feel passionate about “how she thinks men who exercise are sexy” or something like that, I’d probably be in my workout clothes before finishing reading the sentence lol

    Would be interesting to see results of the same study but with custom tailored reading for each participant based on his values.

    I do agree, though, that motivation is over-hyped when talking about habit building, doing something consistently.

    For me motivation is about running that extra mile, getting excited about writing another paragraph, making one extra call. So it definitely has it’s uses.

    • Darius — good examples!

      In general, I agree about motivation. It’s very useful in certain cases. The problem is that our motivation and willpower fluctuate, which means they are hard to rely upon. They are great tools to use when you have them, but they just aren’t the right things to build habits around.

      That said, you’re motivating me to get to the track and run some sprints! Keep up the good work!

  6. Some good ideas are being raised on Twitter, so I’m bringing the conversation here to provide a place for longer answers.

    Original question raised by @buster: I don’t think it’s honest to claim benefits when results are counted in days/weeks. Does this trick work 3 months out? 6? 60? I’ve seen many programs/apps/etc use this method and continue to lose about 80% of people after 3 months. That’s not success.

    About those 100 studies… were they randomized double blind with placebo control? Were they statistically significant?

    My response:

    Buster, I totally hear you and I like the thought behind your questions. What you’re getting at is that changing once might be good, but the real victory is in long-term change.

    I agree. Previously, I wrote about one major reason I think most people don’t achieve sustained success in this article. I’ve also written about strategies and environment changes that can make it easier to stick to goals for the long-term here, here, here, and here. (It’s hard to cover every angle in one blog post.)

    I appreciate the questioning of the data. To the best of my knowledge, the studies cited above are statistically significant and include control groups. (I doubt that every study was double-blind.) I included links to all of the studies at the end of the article above as well as a link to this meta-analysis of 94 studies on this topic. I’m not an expert in research methods, so feel free to dive in and let me know if the data isn’t as sound as I think it is.

    In response to the “80% fail after 3 months” stat:

    Obviously, no strategy will work for every person or every situation. But I don’t think that makes it “dishonest” to share these strategies — especially when backed by academic research. I actually think it might be dishonest to not publish the article. Should we only talk about things if they help the majority of people? Behavior change is tough and if this strategy can help 2 out of 10 people be successful, then I feel like it’s worth publishing.

    That said, if you’ve found a behavior change strategy that works for 80% of people or more, I’m all ears.

    And with all that said — thanks for taking the time to read and share! Questioning my work forces me to become better, which is good for everyone. It’s great to have you in our little community.

  7. Great article James!

    Having a written plan is always better than pure motivation, makes sense!

    Will be applying it this week :)

  8. I was introduced to you by Abel James podcast. At that time, it was like you speaking to me directly, as I was trying to do 3 types of diets at once — the problem, of course, was that I was eating everything. Just get started, you said. Now I do the intermittent fasting and I am working on my sweet tooth. I have been very inconsistent with my exercise. I am a little bit disappointed at my non-progress and all this weight that I am carrying around. I even looked at plastic surgery; problem is I am short in cash. Anyway, again you are talking to me, so I shall set my intent.

    • Marina — first, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. It’s great to have you in our little community.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the podcast and this article. Keep up the good work and continue to “get started.” You don’t need to do it all at once. In fact, I would encourage you to forget about the results. The goal isn’t to “lose X pounds” … the goal is to regain your health. Do that, and the weight will come as a result.

      Take it one step at a time and slowly implement better and better habits. And I’ll try to do my part by sharing helpful information as often as possible. :)

  9. Great advice. Motivation sometimes (if not a lot) comes only after you start doing the action. So another trick to motivate yourself, is to just simply pretend you are doing the action and see if it will trigger the motivation or not. It will 9 out of 10 times!

  10. Hi James, Thank you for the article, which I did enjoy; haven’t managed to read everyone’s comments though so I may well be repeating what someone has already said.

    I think that the pivotal point of this experiment is the fact that Group 3 received the motivational pamphlet too. If someone is not motivated to act they may be forced to write a plan but they are unlikely to not follow-through because they have no motivation. The installing of motivation and the follow-through of a personal plan that fits into their lives, are the crucial two stages that will begin the process of change. The motivational trigger, as you know, is different for all of us but once fired it is the immediate follow-through planning and action that makes things happen.

    Also the plan needs to be easy for us so that it adds to our enthusiasm to follow-through and see our achievements; in turn our implementation of the plan fuels our motivation. As I often say to my clients, it’s about Knowing & Doing. Knowing is great but it you don’t take action – Do – then there is going to be no change. We all know of people who have bought the book, read it and then returned it to the shelf. They Know yet they don’t Do; no motivation has been fired in then to take the next step or there is no one holding them accountable and they ‘let themselves off the hook’.

    The need for an additional trigger/s in the plan is important, as you say, as it allows us to see where the new behaviour fits into our lives. Have you read any of the work by B J Fogg ‘Three Tiny Habits’? Is about attaching a new habit to an already established habit/routine to make it easier to build into our daily lives – http://tinyhabits.com/

    Thanks again for the article, Emma

  11. James-

    Great work full of sound principle and evidence. You would no doubt appreciate the Dominican University study that also talked about the power of sharing your progress weekly as a major contributor to goal achievement.

    We are working hard to harness these best practices in our simple performance and accountability app called irunurun. I welcome your input on it.

    If Aristotle was right, “We are what we repeatedly do,” we’ve found that most people today neither know what to repeatedly do, nor do they do those things. We believe a primary culprit is precisely because they rely too heavily on motivation and willpower…neither of which is consistent from one moment to the next.

    Would love to share our findings from the study of elite soldiers, athletes, and leaders…and how they rely much more on purpose, focus, rhythm, and accountability to consistently do what matters most. Perhaps there is some synergy there.

    Thanks again! -Travis

  12. Hiya James! New to your site. I came here by way of a recommendation from Steve Scott, in case you track such things.

    This post of yours answered a question I didn’t know I needed to pose: “HOW do I stick with a new habit?” I would highly recommend that you reprint or repackage this exact material for the upcoming New Year.

    Just downloaded your eBook. Thanks for making it available free. Looking forward to see if the “if-then” plan indeed works for me. IF it does, THEN I’ll come back and let you know.

    My new habit is to follow the steps in Steve’s book: Internet Lifestyle Productivity. No, I’m not an affiliate, just a pleased customer from Steve’s other works so I’m giving it a plug. Glad he recommended your site to me, planning to come back.

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