“What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” —Goethe
Alea iacta est (the die is cast) is what Julius Caesar is claimed to have said as he led his army across the River Rubicon in northern Italy in 49 B.C., declaring war against the forces of General Pompey. There was literally no turning back.
In a similar if less dramatic way, we cross a point of no return when we decide to take specific action towards achieving a goal. Until we are definitely committed to action, the danger is great that our goal will remain an armchair adventure. One way to ensure that we will actually cross our personal Rubicon is to define what psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls implementation intentions. An implementation intention takes the form of “When situation x arises, I will perform response y.”
Notice that an implementation intention is different from simply stating a goal. Defining a goal is the first step—the goal specifies the outcome you hope to achieve. An implementation intention is the next step—it specifies the behavior(s) you will engage in in order to get there. An implementation intention is a bright line for goal-oriented behavior. It defines the what, where, and when of the next action towards reaching your goal. A bright line makes clear what you should do when the specific situation arises. You can’t help but notice if you cross your bright line. This certainty will help keep you on track even when you are tired or discouraged.
Let’s say you want to become a more confident speaker. The problem with this goal is that it is not immediately actionable. What should you do next? Where should you start? Faced with this vagueness, the danger is great that you will do nothing. Here’s where defining implementation intentions can help. For example, you might decide on the following specific actions to help you achieve your goal of become a more confident speaker:
“When we have a team meeting, I will speak up.”
“At the next dinner party I attend, I will offer a toast to the host.”
“The next time someone asks me what I do, I will respond with my 30 second elevator speech.”
What’s to Do?
Define implementation intentions for your top priority goal. Identify at least three specific situations you face regularly and what behavior would best serve your goal in each of those situations. These are your bright lines.
Share your bright lines with trusted peers. Making your commitment public will add the positive impact of social influence and help you stick to your goals.
Maja Storch, “Crossing Your Personal Rubicon,” Scientific American 14(5), 2004, 94-95.
Peter M. Gollwitzer, “Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans,” American Psychologist 54(7), July 1999, 493-504.
Peter M. Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen, “Implementation Intentions,” In M. Gellman & J. R. Turner (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. New York: Springer, 2013, 1043-48.
Image: Crossing the Rubicon. Jacob Abbott, 1849.