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

The Anatomy of a Failed Goal

If everything had gone according to plan I shouldn't be able to walk very well right now. I should be incredibly sore and spending my day relaxing but with an intense sense of accomplishment. You see, I signed up and paid for the LA Marathon that was held yesterday. But I did not run the LA Marathon.

This is the anatomy of a failure.



At the end of last September I was flush with success and ambition. I had just pulled off a successful event (along with my team of volunteers) that took approximately a year to plan. It was an extreme stretch event -- I had never done anything like it. It was very stressful but in the end I was very, very proud of the work we had done. Still riding that wave of euphoria I decided I needed a new audacious goal to work toward.

I decided that new goal would be the LA Marathon in March.



At first, training went very well. I was motivated and sticking to a plan. However, the first week where I felt like I was truly going to be pushing myself into new territory (I believe my long run was 7 or 8 miles) I got injured. I wasn't too worried at first because injury is often part of the training process, especially for someone who doesn't run a ton and I realized I probably needed some new shoes. I took the following week off, bought some new shoes and tried to focus on the upcoming weeks.

Unfortunately, a combination of recurring pain in my ankle and a complete lack of planning on my part was the beginning of the end.



Just as I was getting over my injury and back into the regular training groove the semester ended and I flew home to Michigan for the holidays. Somehow when I was making the decision to train for a marathon in March I completely missed the point where I'd be living in Michigan for about 4 weeks right in the heart of my most important training time. Michigan. In January. Cold.

I'm a terrible treadmill runner and I always have been. I'm not sure why but I'd rather run in freezing rain or 20 below than on a treadmill. However, at the same time, I had no cold weather running gear. I also didn't have the money to justify buying new cold weather gear when I spend the remaining 11 months of the year living in Southern California.

At this point I'm just over a month away from supposedly running this marathon and all I've been able to accomplish is hurting my ankle and then moving somewhere I can't safely train for 4 weeks. Things were starting to unravel.



If you read the last section again it may look like I'm blaming my lack of marathon training success on treadmills and a lack of proper equipment. However, I know I could have easily fixed that problem if I wanted to. I could've gone out to a sporting goods store and picked up some running tights, a couple long sleeve shirts, and some cheap hats and gloves and toughed out my training in Michigan. I could have utilized some willpower to not overly indulge in the decadent holiday foods and festivities. The problem was with me and my motivation, not the equipment or weather.

For some reason the allure of running a marathon started to wane pretty quickly once I had made the goal. I had even made the conscious decision not to tell people about it because I had read some research that telling people about a longterm goal makes it less likely that you'll actually follow through.

However, by the time I flew back to California at the end of January I had officially dropped the marathon goal in favor of something else. I decided to just eat the registration fee instead of showing up at the race and trying to just gut my way through it. Part of me wanted to do just that. I mean, what's more audacious than basically not training for a marathon but just showing up and battling through it anyway? What would make for a better story?

That would have been the ultimate stupid icing on top of this whole ill-advised cake, though. The last thing I needed was to hurt myself doing something like that.



Now, I'm doing my best to learn from my mistakes. The first thing I learned is that making plans for the future when you're in an artificially elevated state (like I was just days after doing something awesome) may not be the best time to make those decisions. It's probably better to slow down and make a more careful decision about where I want to place my focus when I'm not so amped up.

Secondly, I've learned to not underestimate the effect of reality. For example, I should have realized that I was going to be going back to Michigan for a large chunk of my training and running would be difficult in the winter conditions there. Tied to that was the fact that I gave myself just under 6 months to prepare for this distance. That's not an impossible amount of time, but it definitely doesn't allow you any wiggle room if you have to deal with injury or a lackluster training week in general. Every time I fell short of my running goals I became more and more anxious because it felt like the day of the race was bearing down on me. Instead of using that as motivation I think it ultimately demotivated me. If I wanted to give myself a better chance at actually preparing properly for a marathon I should've picked one further away.

Finally, I realized that there's a big difference between doing something because you like the idea of having done it and doing something because you want to do it. I liked the idea of being a marathon runner. I like doing things that challenge my physical abilities. However, to do it right I should've built up the habit of running. I was starting from almost scratch and trying to both instill a new habit and push myself at the same time. I would've been much more successful if I had taken a couple weeks or months just building the habit of running every day. I couldn't worked out when the best time to run would be and then shifting into a training schedule wouldn't have been such a shock. Instead, I was trying to figure out when the best time to run would be and increas mileage all at the same time. I had no steady base to work from and the first time I faced adversity (i.e. injury & cold weather) I fell apart.

Luckily, it hasn't been all bad news. Ever since I decided to officially drop the goal of training for the marathon at the end of January I've been doing something else fitness related. I've never been as consistent or seen as much in the way of results as I have since the end of January and now. I think my success in this area (and I'll share it with you sometime in the near future) stems directly from what I learned from the failed marathon goal.

It's okay to fail at something as long as you take a moment to figure out why. If I had failed at training for this marathon and ultimately just sat around feeling sorry for myself or being mad at myself then it would've been a complete waste. Instead, I'm doing my best to learn what I can, make changes to the way I do things, and continue to grow as a person.

Photo via jk5854


New Year's Resolutions in October: Getting 2012 Started Right

It's that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing colors, and pumpkin flavoring is invading all sorts of non-pumpkin foods -- it's time for New Year's Resolutions!


You heard me correctly. Today, October 25th, I want you to start working on your 2012 New Year Resolutions. Why wait until the calendar flips over to start changing your life? What's so special about January 1st vs. October 25th? Instead of jumping into your set of New Year Resolutions in a couple months, why not set the stage right now to make yourself successful? What does it even take to be successful? Why have you been successful with resolutions in the past? Why do most people fail on their New Year's Resolutions? Am I get annoying with all the questions, yet?

There's a lot of different components of the resolution making process that we could look at. I think there are four things we can all begin doing today to make what we resolve to do in 2012 last beyond the second week of February.


Don't wait until January 1st, 2012 to start thinking about changing your life for the better. You can begin laying the framework for successful resolutions today by adjusting your mindset, making physical and mental space to grow, and clarifying your values.

  1. Mindset: To make a New Year Resolution last you need a mindset of personal development that doesn't require a new year to motivate. We place too much emphasis on the importance of a "fresh start" on January 1st when we can actually give ourselves a fresh start every day. Every day you can make a decision to continue on the path you're on or to do something different. Your days, hours, and minutes are made up of all the individual decisions you make. Each decision is an opportunity to change your life for the better. A piece of fit or a cupcake for a snack? Work on a project or browse the internet mindlessly? Do a couple pushups or make an excuse? You don't need to wait until January 1st to start changing your decisions for the better.
  2. Clear the crap: Minimalism has played a huge part in my life. Clearing all the physical stuff out of my immediate environment that I didn't truly care about had a hugely liberating effect on me. I'm not saying you need to go to the same extreme as me, but I do think that thinking seriously about what you let into your life (physically and mentally) is very important. If you want to fill 2012 with new habits and choices, how are you going to make space for them? Spend the next couple months clearing the space to let the improved you grow and prosper.
  3. Clarifying values: Everything I do with my coaching, writing, and living comes back to values. Our values drive our daily actions and decisions. For something that's so important to our functioning, very few people have a truly good grasp on their values. Spend the next couple of months asking yourself what you truly care about, what you want to change in your life, and why you believe these things. If you're clear on your values then setting resolutions that align with them won't be difficult. Tying your resolutions directly to your values means that you're going to be incredibly unlikely to break them. It all hinges on figuring out and clarifying your values first.

Earning Achievements in You: The Videogame

It used to be that just reaching the end of a video game was enough. After hours of playing and working your way through different and progressively harder levels, you'd finally reach the end. In a climactic battle against the gnarliest boss you've encountered in the entire game you would finally reach the end and could set down your controller with a sigh of relief. You have beaten it, and you are the master.

Today's video games, however, don't settle for letting you merely beat the game. You're welcome to play through the story line and reach the conclusion, but that's not where the real fun hides any more. Instead, video games today have what are known as Achievements. Each game comes with a different set of unique Achievements that encourage you to spend time playing the game in a different way than you normally would. Essentially, they are little trophies for accomplishing certain things within a game. For example, I recently bought Starcraft 2 (it's about time, Blizzard!) and have attained Achievements for killing a certain number of units in a limited amount of time, for executing certain aspects of the game very quickly, for progressing the storyline forward in the campaign mode and many other actions. There are probably a hundred more that I have not even begun working on yet-- but I plan on it. It adds an interesting dynamic and a ton of replay value when you have something to work toward other than just "finishing" the game.


I've recently realized that I have taken the concept of video game Achievements and applied them to my own development. Instead of just mindlessly rushing through life to get to the end, like an old school video game, I've been taking time to accomplish interesting and unique things on the side. If you could take a look at my Sam: The Video Game Achievement Showcase, you'd see the following:

  1. The "Go Vegetarian for a Week" Achievement
  2. The "Completely Disconnected Weekend" Achievement
  3. The "Complete a Duathlon" Achievement
  4. The "Travel to a Foreign Country" Achievement

In addition to these already accomplished achievements, I'm working on a couple more:

  1. The "Re-read all of the Lord of the Rings books" Achievement
  2. The "Write a 2nd Ebook" Achievement
  3. The "1/2 Marathon" Achievement

Video games aren't the greatest way to spend leisure time but they have at least encouraged me to spend time away from the beaten path and to try new ways of doing things.

What achievements have you earned in You: The Video Game? What ones are you working toward? Share in the comments!


There's No Speed Limit

I read an article back in December by Derek Sivers titled "There's no speed limit (The lessons that changed my life.)" In the article Derek describes the music lessons he received from musician Kimo Williams. Williams taught Derek two years Berkley School of Music coursework in theory and arranging in only a few lessons. Derek then went on to test out of 6 semesters of required classes and graduated in two and a half years.

I love reading inspirational stories but I think this one had an especially acute effect on me. Williams motto was that "there's no speed limit" in terms of what you can learn and how fast you can learn it. The only limit is your own expectations and your willingness to work hard. This got me thinking about all the different artificial limits that we are conditioned to accept as we grow up. Each year in school you are supposed to learn a certain amount of information that the higher-ups have deemed adequate for your grade. Each year you move up a grade and the level of what you learn raises a little bit more. Sure, some people go a little bit above that expected limit or some don't quite reach that benchmark but by and large, there is a limit to what you are expected to do.

I wonder how many of us still operate with a similar limitation once we leave the organized school system? I've always been a pretty bright guy but for some reason I've never really sat down and challenged myself to the extent that Derek did during his lessons with Kimo Wiliams. There shouldn't be anything holding me back. Between libraries and the amazing possibilities that the internet opens I have access to almost any information I could possibly want. The only thing that is preventing me from doing something with all that information is my own expectations for myself.

From now on I'm going to try to remember that there's no speed limit. I can learn as much as I want and as quickly as I can handle it. I don't have to wait to move up to the next "grade," buy the next volume, or wait for anybody else around me. My own development is going to be set by my own expectations which, from now on, are going to be very high. If I don't set my expectations for myself at an adequate level, there is nobody else that will. It's up to me.

How high are your expectations? Are you meeting them?

Simplifying Your New Year's Resolutions

It's that time of year again. That one where we all make promises to ourselves that get broken in about two months. We all start with the greatest of intentions but life seems to slowly intervene until we're back to December wondering why our resolutions from a year ago didn't stick. There are as many ways to tackle making new Year's Resolutions as there are ways to break them. Are you just going to pick one overall goal for the year? Maybe you'll do a different goal for each month of the year? How about selecting multiple goals from different areas of your life? I've tried almost all of them and I've had varying levels of success. This year, however, I'm going to try something new.

First of all, why do we make resolutions? It's because we feel like we aren't doing things we should (or we are doing things we shouldn't) and we feel some type of guilt, shame, or other negative feeling. We feel this way because we realize that when we don't stick to those "things" we resolve to do, we drift further from living how we think we should live. In other words, we lose sight of our values.

If you've never thought about your values, I may have just lost you there. Your values are the principles or ideas that guide your life (i.e. help you make decisions). In the past, I've written about my values such as Growth, Family, Critical Thinking and Discipline, to name a few. Most people will have a huge list of values that they give varying degrees of importance; these just happen to be a few of my most important ones. Your values are the principles that you hold most dear and they are the metric by which you decide if you are doing the things you should. A person without values is rudderless and set adrift in a sea of endless stimulus.

My idea for this year's resolutions, instead of just grabbing ideas out of thin air for things "I'd like to do," is to use my list of values. Why make a new list of resolutions when I already have a list of values that I want to live closer to anyway? Each month I'm going to take one value to focus on. At the end of the month, I'm going to set aside some time to reflect and see how successful I was in strengthening that one, and all the other, values that I think are important. Did I do anything to grow as an individual? What did I do for my family? Did I have any good examples of showing integrity? Spending a few minutes throughout the year (monthly, weekly, bi-monthly, whatever) will help me keep these values in the forefront of my mind and hopefully help me make better decisions.

This year I encourage you to make a different list than your normal collection of "resolutions" that actually don't resolve much of anything and dissolve a couple months later. The whole point of making these resolution is to live a life more like the one we envision for ourselves. We need lasting change that matters, not a brief burst of well-meaning. Instead, if you haven't already, sit down and figure out your values. What are the five or six principles that you live your life by? That right there is the basis for your New Year's resolutions and the basis for long-term success.

My resolution this year is to live a life of value based on my values. What's yours?