'Brain hack' turns goals into reality

Procrastination expert says implementation intentions work by helping you to plan preemptive responses to situations that challenge your goal.

Jordan Heuvelmans 3 minute read January 30, 2020

Ever wonder if there is an easier way to break bad habits and turn your goals into reality?

Many of us set goals for ourselves daily, monthly and even yearly, but who are we kidding? It’s super easy to come up with a list of all the things we should change in our lives, but the following through part is a whole other story.

But it may be too soon to give up. Scientists at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute are putting a brain hack to the test that can help people improve their fitness, diet and overall health.

The brain hack is known as ‘implementation intentions’ a term referring to ‘if/then’ plans or ‘where/why/how’ plans.

Timothy Pychyl, PhD. an associate professor at Carleton University who specializes in the study of procrastination says that implementation intentions work by supporting an intended goal by setting out in advance what your response to when/where and how you will achieve this goal.

Essentially, it’s about anticipating specific situational cues and setting up responses for when you come across them.

For example, if you’re trying to keep a healthy diet, you may think about opting for fruit whenever grandma offers you chocolate. So you’ll mentally tell yourself, “If grandma offers me chocolate whenever I visit her house, I will decline and reach for an apple or orange.” The idea is that your brain will automatically go to its anticipated response rather than be faced with the willpower and temptation of a decision.

Justin Presseau, a scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and his colleagues have recently completed a systematic review that’s yet to be published on how this brain hack can help turn people’s goals into action.

Their work examines studies from around the world where implementation intentions were used to try to change health behaviours in various groups. This ranged from efforts to encourage heart attack survivors to follow exercise plans to getting people at risk of cancer to participate in cancer screenings, to aiding smokers to quit.

Presseau called the studies on implementation intentions “exciting”  compared to other strategies, especially because there is so much good data supporting it.

Similar studies have been done around the world, with one of the most recent in the U.K. in 2019. University of Leeds professor Mark Conner led a study that examined implementation intentions’ effects on helping youth to quit smoking. He found a ten per cent reduction in smoking rates among adolescents who formed a plan to quit compared to those who didn’t. He said that the brain hack is a simple and cost effective way to help hundreds if not thousands of people reach their goals.