Toolbox: Implementing Change

What is the hardest part of a training session? The first step out of the door. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is drawing in, the temperature is dropping and many cyclists are summoning the willpower to hit the roads or face the drudgery of the home-trainer.

However, there are some simple tricks to increase the likelihood that you can overcome your reluctance and maintain your training consistency.

Most amateur cyclists squeeze training sessions around a wide variety of other commitments. This often means that workouts are executed first thing in the morning, or late in the day after work. Perhaps you’ve set up your equipment in advance, to make it easier to fall out of bed, or through the door, and on to your bike, but do you prepare your mind?

Tom Boonen checks his bike before a training ride

Many studies have found that a simple technique called ‘implementation intention’ can significantly increase our chances of translating intentions into action by ‘spelling out’ the ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘how’ of our goals, in advance (1).

Implementation intentions have been shown to be effective in (1, 2):
• Encouraging us to make a goal and strive towards it.
• Shielding us from distractions and unwanted influences.
• Reducing the likelihood that we’ll become disengaged, if things don’t go to plan.
• Making our actions towards our goals more automatic, and less effortful.

At its most basic level, implementation intention reframes our goals as an ‘If-Then’ statement. ‘If’ provides the cue that primes our attention and sets our intention. ‘Then’ represents our planned response to that cue.

My biggest challenge with early morning training sessions is avoiding the distraction of e-mail. If I look at one message, I’m likely to get sucked into work, and my workout will go out of the window. I’ve used some ‘If-Then’ statements to help with keep my own training on track this winter.

I have two trusty ‘If-Thens’, that I write in a notebook on my computer. I use them to prime myself ahead of my morning routine. It’s a way to stimulate my plan and prepare my brain, to increase the likelihood that I’ll follow it.

IF I feel like hitting ‘snooze’ on my alarm, THEN I will jump out of bed as fast as I can.”

IF I catch myself checking e-mail before I’ve got my cycling kit on, THEN I will close down mail immediately and continue getting ready for my session.”

At first, I have to admit, I was sceptical about this approach. Could writing down goals in such a simple way really have an effect on my performance? However, it is underpinned by a plausible mechanism and a number of good studies support the efficacy of this technique (2). Writing a goal in this way leverages our ability to focus our attention on the future and ‘primes’ our attention. It has a powerful influence on what we ignore, what we see and ultimately how we act.

You could break the process of setting your own implementation intentions into four steps:

1) Decide what you want to do. Define your ‘what,’ the manageable behavior that you are trying to modify. It could relate to what you do when you first get up in the morning; it may relate to an exercise goal. It could be almost anything, as long as it’s simple, clear enough to describe in specific actions, and represents a good balance between stretching yourself and being achievable.

2) Decide when you want to do it. Select your ‘when,’ a time or set of circumstances to trigger your action. You could choose a time of day, or another behavioral cue to trigger the action. For example, my ‘when’ is as soon as I get out of bed. By planning the specific ‘when’, we can increase our chances of success.

3) Put the ‘what’ and ‘when’ elements together into an “If… then…” statement. If you were trying to include stretching exercises in your day, for example, you could say If I get up from my desk to make a drink, then I will spend one minute stretching”.

4) Write this If… then… statement down on paper or a computer. Creating some physical evidence for your goal seems to be an important part of the process in preparing your brain.

I encourage you to try and it out this winter, and see how you get on!

1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119

2. Freydefont, L., Gollwitzer, P.M., Oettingen, G. (2016) Goal striving strategies and effort mobilization: When implementation intentions reduce effort-related cardiac activity during task performance. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 107. p.44-53

About James
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website
latest newspsychologyScienceToolboxtraining