The Psychology of GTD, Part 2: Implementation Intentions

Last week I released the first part of my series on the Psychology of GTD. This week, we move on to the idea of "implementation intentions" and the science of goal setting.


At a very basic level, success with using a GTD system is all about setting and achieving goals. Both Projects and Next Actions could be considered goals. Projects are obviously larger and more long term (usually, but not always) than Next Actions but they are united by the fact that they are goals in the sense of describing an end state that you're trying to achieve. Given the reliance on goals and goal setting it makes sense that some of the research done in the field of psychology on this topic is relevant to GTD.

Implementation Intentions

The research on implementation intentions is all about how to best set and then take action toward meaningful goals. It's one thing to set a goal and a completely different thing to take regular action toward that goal. I only have to look as far as all the failed goals and habit changes I've ever experienced to see the difference between the two. Implementation intentions are all about how to get yourself to take "goal directed behavior" even when you may not feel like it or even realize you should.

How Implementation Intentions Work

You have some sort of goal that you wish to achieve, say, losing 15 pounds. You decide that an action you can take toward that stated goal is no longer eating a bowl of ice cream as a bedtime snack. You've basically set the intention to stop eating ice cream after dinner in the hope that it will support your ultimate goal of losing weight. The missing piece, according to the implementation intention researchers, is the details around how you're going to take that goal-directed action.

Instead of just setting an intention you have to also set the details around that implementation. This takes the form of an "if-then" statement that includes the positive behavior change. For example, the person in our ice cream example could set the implementation intention of, "IF I feel hungry after dinner THEN I will eat a piece of my favorite fruit." This statement helps create a cause-effect link in our ice cream eater's mind about when he is going to take certain goal relevant action. Now, instead of using his willpower to fight the urge to eat ice cream every night he simply has to enact his implementation intention ("eat a piece of my favorite fruit") when the proper environmental conditions are met ("it's after dinner and I'm hungry"). Over time this cause-effect relationship becomes even stronger and is enacted almost automatically.

Implications for GTD

When you're first starting GTD you have to use a lot of willpower to keep it going. There's all these lists and checklists and frameworks and it all seems so tedious and overwhelming! I think that's why a lot of people never really see enough success with GTD to keep it going. GTD doesn't really start "clicking" until you get the behaviors that promote it to happen automatically. Using your inbox to capture all information in your life, using some sort of ubiquitous capture tool, doing mental RAM dumps, doing Weekly Reviews, reviewing checklists... there are a lot of behaviors that need to be taken to make GTD successful for you.

Using the implementation intention idea can help these behaviors become automatic. For example, you could set an implementation intention like, "IF I have an idea when I'm not in front of my computer THEN I will pull out my smart phone and write myself a note," or "IF it's Sunday afternoon THEN I'm going to sit down and do my Weekly Review." Using the physical artifacts of a GTD system can also serve as the IF statement, "IF I'm looking at my Project list and I see a lack of Next Actions THEN I will take a moment to figure out what the Next Action is," for example. Forming implementation intentions is similar to creating a productivity system like GTD in that it's an external system. In the same way that GTD is an external system to hold tasks/projects/goals, implementation intentions are an external system for taking the actions to make those tasks/projects/goals actually happen.


Next week we will discuss the idea of how Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow is connected to GTD.


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Photo by Angie Torres