A Surprising Procrastination Fix: Implementation Intentions
A new system uses behavioral science to address the real reason you fail.
Posted Feb 28, 2019
Imagine the driver of a car on his way home from work, cruising down a long and narrow road.
Just recently, this driver has decided to finally, at long last, begin writing the novel he’s always dreamed about writing. Now coming up on his right in about one mile is the library where he’s promised himself he’ll get started.
Now just as he’s about to make his right turn, out of nowhere, a thought hits him like a bolt of lightning: "I can’t work on my book today, I have that urgent client report I need to write." So the driver speeds past the library, races home, and plunges into his client work instead. The next morning, he wakes up and wonders, “What the hell was I thinking?”
For the next few days, the driver continues to try to make that right turn – and fails every single time. At this point, the driver needs help.
That’s where we come in to the story. You and I, dear reader, are his advisors. And our first task, in order to help the driver overcome his procrastination, is to figure out why. What exactly is the root cause of the driver’s irrational behavior?
If we look again closely at the picture of the driver sitting inside his car, we’ll quickly learn his persistent failures are no accident. They’re sabotage.
Sitting beside the driver, unbeknownst to him, is a passenger. An invisible bloke who, every time the driver tries to make his right turn, moves heaven and earth to make sure he doesn’t.
If we want to help the driver consistently make his right turn, arrive at library, and write his novel, we have to first answer three questions: who is the Passenger, what does he want, and by what means does he sabotage the driver?
Who is the Passenger?
By now you probably realize that the driver and Passenger are a metaphor for the profoundly conflicted nature of the human mind.
The driver represents the rational part of our brain. The more recently evolved prefrontal cortex. The system in our brain where we reason, make decisions, and plan for the future.
The Passenger, on the other hand, represents the emotional part of our brain, the more primitive limbic system. This system is tasked with many responsibilities, but one of its most important is responding rapidly to potential threats in our environment.
It's clear from our story that the Passenger sees the driver’s attempts at writing his novel as one of these threats. But why?
There’s most likely an evolutionary explanation. In an incredibly dangerous primitive world, early man couldn’t afford to spend his precious time and energy on activities that delivered delayed rewards, such as saving food for a rainy day or practicing proper running technique. By the time the payoff for these activities arrived, he might have already been devoured by a giant hyena.
And so, evolutionary psychologists theorize, individuals who had Passengers with a strong preference for immediate rewards, or what we might commonly refer to as immediate gratification, were more likely to survive and pass on copies of their genes.
Today, of course, we are living in a radically different environment. But because evolution hasn’t quite yet caught up, we are still endowed with Passengers that strongly favor immediate gratification, and conversely, see delayed gratification activities as a threat.
Which explains why the Passenger sabotages our driver every time he attempts to write his novel. But how exactly does the Passenger compel the driver to procrastinate?
As you’re about to learn, the Passenger uses a remote control to do his dirty work. Because it turns out the Passenger is no ordinary passenger. He’s a professional hacker.
How the Passenger Hacks the Driver
When the driver first forms his intention to go to the library, the right turn is far enough down the road, that to the Passenger – who is primarily sensitive to concrete sensory information – the activity remains a harmless, abstract idea.
However, as the right turn approaches, the sights and sounds associated with the library start to become salient. The Passenger sits up in his seat.
It’s at this point the Passenger presses the fear response button on his remote control. This sends signals to the driver’s hypothalamus, which in turn activates his pituitary gland, resulting in the secretion of fight-or-flight hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. These chemicals cause the driver to experience an elevated heart rate, faster breathing, increased blood pressure, and greater overall brain arousal.
But the most consequential effect of these physiological responses, perhaps, is how profoundly it alters his perception.
It’s like the driver has unknowingly put on a special set of “fear goggles”, goggles that cause him to now see the world through the eyes of the Passenger. That is to say, immediately rewarding activities appear more vivid, compelling, while delayed reward activities appear dull and uninspiring.
The consequences of this altered perception is a dramatic change in feelings I call: The 180.
While just an hour prior, the driver felt the right turn to go to the library was vitally important. Now he feels it to be largely a waste of time. At the same time, a previously mild interest in seeing Star Wars, now feels like an obsession. Similarly, moderately important client work suddenly feels like it deserves immediate, unwavering attention.
So now that we understand the mechanism by which the Passenger, that backstabbing, roguish, rapscallion, prevents the driver from making the right turn, the question is: what can the driver do about it?
Well it’s difficult for the driver to try to fight back against the Passenger with brute force. In other words to exercise willpower. Willpower rarely stand a chance against the powerful surge of emotions associated with the 180.
But instead of outmatch the Passenger's hack, perhaps the driver can outsmart him.
What if the driver could, in advance of being hacked, while he is still of sound mind, automate the right turn, the same way we can automate our alarm clock to go off at a certain time? That way when the driver inevitably gets hacked, the right turn would still go on automatically. Sound impossible?
It would be, if not for a shocking detail of which the driver is currently unaware. The car he’s been riding around in is no ordinary car: it’s a programmable self-driving car.
How to Outsmart the Passenger: Implementation Intentions
If the driver and Passenger represent the prefrontal cortex and limbic system respectively, the self-driving car represents a system of the human brain, that we have just in recent decades learned is programmable: procedural memory.
It’s hard to convey how extraordinary this discovery is. Granted, we’ve long known that procedural memory is the domain of lots of automatic behaviors, namely habits.
Procedural memory is what allows us to brush our teeth every morning, turn off the lights when we leave the room, or throw our phone against the wall every time we get a robocall.
But our procedural memory usually acquires these behaviors slowly, through experience -- a process that takes many repetitions, over a period of weeks or months to take hold.
It’s only recently that psychologists have learned a way that we can effectively “program” actions into our procedural memory -- in just one quick sitting. How?
The answer is with a technique known as implementation intentions.
Implementation intentions mean deciding on two things: one, what specific action we want to take and two, specifically when and where we plan to take it.
Researchers have found the best results when subjects formulate these decisions using simple IF-THEN statements. Where THEN precedes the activity we wish to perform, and IF precedes the situational cue that specifies when and where we should perform it.
For instance: “IF it’s after lunch THEN I’ll work on my presentation.”
Indeed, implementation intentions are so simple, that upon hearing about them people inevitably ask: how is that any different than what I normally do?
When we take on new activities, we often stop short of forming implementation intentions, and instead create goal intentions – which take the even simpler form of “I intend to do X”.
When we form a goal intention, while we may indeed specify the action we want to perform, we don’t specify the cue that tells us when we should perform it. For an illustration, just think of the vast majority of to-do lists you see scattered across homes and offices all over the world. All actions, but no cues.
That, it turns out, proves to be a tremendous missed opportunity. Because when we specify both the action and the cue, the two become linked together and stored inside our procedural memory. The result is what the social psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls an instant-habit.
Now, here’s the magic. Just like habits don’t need to be consciously initiated, neither, now, thanks to our implementation intentions, does our growth activity. When the cue arrives, our procedural memory triggers the activity automatically.
For example, had we previously specified we would begin working on our presentation immediately after lunch, as soon as we finish our sandwich we might find ourselves walking to our office to begin our work, without even consciously realizing it. Even if our prefrontal cortex didn’t particularly feel like it.
Close to 100 peer reviewed studies show the astonishing effectiveness of implementation intentions in getting us to follow through on delayed gratification activities.
Let’s inform the driver, shall we?
The driver, now armed with our advice, each day at 5pm, pulls over to the side of the road. A mile out from the library, he reaches for the interface on the dashboard that allows him to program his self-driving car.
He instructs the car, that when it reaches the street the library resides on – Main Street – to turn right. (IF Main Street THEN turn right). When he’s finished, the driver begins heading towards the library.
As the right turn approaches, the Passenger executes his fear response like usual and the driver finds himself in the midst of the 180.
But just as the driver, fear goggles firmly in place, is about to speed past the right turn, something extraordinary happens.
The wheel begins turning to the right by itself. Soon thereafter the driver finds himself at the library, finally beginning his book. Eureka!
If we, like the driver, want to consistently execute the most meaningful activities in our lives, activities that invariably require delayed gratification, we have to address the real source of our procrastination: the Passenger.
We have to take on this insidious part of our brain which is determined to thwart our attempts to go to the gym, read a long biography, or learn a foreign language.
It turns out we can’t reliably overpower the Passenger, but there is a tool we can use to outsmart him: implementation intentions.
Note: A version of this article was originally published at the Mission, a Medium.com Publication.