Imagine you’ve decided to go skydiving for the first time. You clench your teeth and squeeze your eyes tight as you muster up the willpower to launch yourself from the plane. You are sailing more than 12,000 feet high, and you know there is no turning back. The adrenaline is pumping and excitement is flowing to all of your extremities.  You go to pull the cord to open your parachute only to realize you don’t have one. Why in the world wouldn’t you ensure that you are fully prepared, parachute and all, before launch? 

As silly as the story seems, Dr. Jade has shared through this blog post, that this tale illustrates how many people try to make changes without a proper plan. It’s human nature to want to move into action once you know a change needs to be made to enhance your health and well-being. Many people declare their goal and then charge out into the world thinking change will just somehow happen. 

As you begin to dreamily think about how magical change may be, reality kicks in. Forgetting to set aside time to properly map out how you can put your plans into action blocks the ability for execution. The motivation for change that was once high falls away. Confidence in any ability to successfully build healthy habits is close to zero. 

If this seems a little woo woo for you, think of it this way. You make a declaration to build healthy habits, and then brace for the hard work ahead. Let’s say you’ve decided to work on building 3 healthy habits based upon our 4 M philosophy of mindset, movement, meals, and metabolics (structured exercise). You are going to get in 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, hit your goal of 10k steps Monday-Saturday, and lift weights 4 times a week. Your declaration has been made, and while that is a plus, there is no plan of action here.

Before you can ever move into action, you realize your foundation for change is shaky. You don’t have any fruits and veggies at home, so you head to the local food shop only to discover that what you need isn’t there, stock is low, or the produce isn’t fresh. You have no way of tracking your steps and the weather is going to be terrible this week so getting in that amount of movement likely won’t happen. Plus you don’t even have a gym membership or access to weights. What do you think your level of success will be? 

How can we make a permanent change and build new healthy habits? Dr. Jade believes the answer is “implementation intention,” and it is the single most important consideration for successful habit change. Implementation intention involves the act of making a specific behavioral plan, and involves tackling change head-on with three simple questions. 

  • “What are you going to do?” 
  • “When are you going to do it?” 
  • “How will you go about it?”

By answering these questions, you immediately start to plan, scheduling and troubleshooting the entire effort before you even start. And it works big time! 

A research review published in Advances In Experimental Social Psychology journal analyzed 94 studies conducted over a 13-year period with a total of 8,000 participants. The researchers found that intentional planning was a key factor in successful habit change of all types (think of everything from dietary change to spending habits). And the effect was not small. This research showed that this simple activity increased the chance of successful change by 50 to 80 percent!

Why Does It Work?

The reason this works so well is pretty straightforward when you think about it. Most people wanting to make a change simply declare their intentions, but rarely get specific about what is required. Asking, “What am I going to do?” helps you get crystal clear about what your new behavior requires. You begin to prime the brain to look for opportunities to help you move into action and be successful.

However, this alone is not enough. There is a lot going on in that brain of yours and it is easily distracted. By asking, “When am I going to do it?” you are taking the uncertainty out of the equation. The human brain actually craves certainty, so you will often default to your old behaviors when you begin to move into uncharted territory. Giving your brain a cue about when and how to focus is critical in any new change effort.

The most crucial part of any change is practice, and that is what the third question forces you to do. By asking, “How am I going to do it?” your brain automatically tasks itself to predicting possible obstacles, and specifically plots out how to address them. This may be the most powerful, and so often overlooked, aspect of building new habits and creating sustainable changes.

How Do I Begin the Process?

If you are really ready to develop new healthy habits, start by taking out a sheet of paper (yes, you have to do this part). Writing it down makes it far more tangible and is a great reminder, if you need it. To start, write the first question, “What am I going to do?” at the top. Now answer it, and be as specific as possible. For example, “I am going to go to the gym four times weekly.”

Now, write the second question below the first. “When am I going to do it?” Record the answer to this question. Again, be specific. For example, you might write, “I am going to go to the gym at 5:30 p.m., right after work on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.”

Now, write and answer “How am I going to do it?” This question is most critical, so get specific. You might write, “I will pack a gym bag every night and put it in my car right after it is packed. I will also make sure I have a protein shake every day at 4 p.m. so I am not sidetracked by hunger. When I get to the gym I will walk for 20 minutes on the treadmill at an incline of 2.0 and speed of 2.5 miles per hour. I will then follow that with 20 minutes of weight training, doing 12 reps each of four exercises in a circuit like this: squat, chest press, back row, and shoulder press. If the gym is crowded, and a circuit workout is not feasible, I will simply do five minutes straight of each exercise, resting whenever I need to and starting again where I left off. I will stretch my whole body for 10 minutes after my session. I will leave the gym feeling energized and proud!”

Now Give it A Try! 

You have just given your brain a crystal-clear road map for success. Take this paper and read it over one more time. If you can, make a copy of this road map. You can put a copy in your purse, gym bag, or wallet and hang another copy on your fridge or post it on your desk. Look at it from time to time, or even daily, if needed. You are now primed for change.

Share your 3 steps with us, or with someone who is part of your support system, and let us know how developing healthy habits is working out for you!

Special thanks to Dr. Jade Teta for the original article & blog post inspiration (linked above, circa 2013). Some original content has been altered for publication on this site.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash