Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions

There are some great techniques for taking an goal and making it much more achievable. Here we will talk about two techniques that are fantastically well support by research:

  • Mental Contrasting
  • Implementation Intentions

These have been tested in combination and together are called MCII.

Mental Contrasting

Here the task is to consider alternating points of view of the goal. You want to form a strong mental link between the rewards you will get for succeeding and the obstacles that stand in your way.

You want to start by thinking of the good parts, get excited by the positive things this will lead to. How will you feel about it when it’s completed? what will change? Visualise in detail what it will be like when you have just reached that aim.

Next consider the difficulties. What tasks will you have to do, are their any hurdles or problems you expect to face. Think your very first step, could you start it right away?

It is also worth quickly thinking through an “if-then” reaction (see below) for your sticking points that you have identified. For example, if you are trying to run every day but you know some days you feel tired and find it difficult to start. In that case you could set the response to be “If I ever feel too tired to start running then I will put my running shoes on and leave the house whether I actually run or not.” The problem is likely to be self-control depletion not exhaustion, by getting to the point of actually running you have lowered the mental effort of starting.

In other words repeatedly as yourself “why do it” and “what’s stopping me”. Here are some ways to phrase those questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What is the most likely thing to cause me to fail? Imagine you are: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired (H.A.L.T) then imagine having to do the task; would you still do it?
  • How would my life be different a week after completing the goal compared to if I hadn’t done it?
  • Imagine the scenario where you fail the task, why was that?
  • How would your life be different a year after the task?
  • Think of another reason why you might have failed.
  • Am I excited to get started?
  • Do I think I will succeed?

If-Then Triggers (Implementation Intentions)

The second technique involves taking a goal and turning it to the format “if/when …. happens then I will …..”. It is about forming a mental link that tells you when to act.

The key to this method of goal setting is to set up simple triggers (the “if/when” part) and a mechanical starting point (the “then I will” part). A trigger is something to tell you when to start working on your goal, a mechanical task is one that can be done with no thinking, or at least without conscious thought. By thinking of your goal in terms of triggers and starting points you can form a habit much quicker.

The trigger should be vivid and concrete. e.g not “when I finish washing up” but “when I put the last item into the drying rack”. It’s good to use the end of one thing that happens regularly as the trigger for a goal. The task should just specify the first thing you need to do and it should require no decisions at all. e.g. not “stretch for 10 mins” but “set stopwatch for 10 mins and swing left leg”. Once you have started you can work out the rest of what to do.

The trigger also should specify exactly where and when you start, a good example would be “straight after brushing your teeth every weekday morning” (this is only a good example if you already have the habit of brushing your teeth every morning), a bad example would be “at 8:15am”, what happens if you wake up a bit late and are brushing your teeth at that time. A further problem with purely time based triggers is that you wont be able to tell it is exactly 8:15 unless you set an alarm and in a lot of cases it is not practical to have many alarms going off through the day.

A mechanical starting point is something that gets you started without having to think. Setting your alarm for 10mins and swinging your leg back and forward would be a good starting point for the goal of become more flexible. If your goal was to write a book a good starting point would be to get out your notebook and read through the last bit of what you wrote last time. A bad starting point would be to continue writing where you left off last time, that requires conscious thought.

Some goals do not have a time based trigger at all, for example “not snacking” applies all the time. You still want to form a habit that your subconscious can follow without having to deplete your self control. In that cause I would suggest framing the goal in terms of “if … then …” e.g. if I feel the urge to snack then I will eat a few nuts and seeds and drink a glass of water. For goals like this you can also factor in the brain taking the easiest option, if you make it a real effort to get to the snacks you will be less likely to do so.


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