Breaking bad habits & creating good ones

Breaking Bad Habits and Creating New Ones Download PDF

Many everyday behaviours are not conscious or deliberate – they are habitual. Rolling out of bed, filling up the kettle, having a shower and racing around the house to leave on time in the morning – most of this is done on auto-pilot.

A huge amount of household energy use is embedded in habitual behaviours. This is one of the reasons that despite good intentions, we often fail to make changes that reduce the amount of energy we use. So how can bad energy habits be broken, and good ones put in their place?

One strategy that has been developed by psychologists involves generating ‘implementation intentions’ (Gollwitzer, 1999). Implementation intentions are ‘if-then’ plans that link situational cues (i.e., good opportunities to act, critical moments) with responses that are effective in achieving goals or desired outcomes (“If situation X is encountered, then I will initiate behaviour Y in order to reach goal Z!”). Implementation intentions translate good intentions into measureable action – and so are a critical tool for those seeking to promote sustainable behaviours.

Research has shown that forming even strong goal intentions (without implementation intentions) leaves a large gap between intention and goal attainment (i.e. action). In particular, people can fail to get started (because there is no specified starting point) and can get derailed along the way (because there are not enough markers of progress).

To form an implementation intention, the person must first identify a response that is important for goal attainment and, second, anticipate a critical cue to initiate that response. For example, a person might specify a behaviour (‘choose healthy option from menu’), and a situational cue with which to trigger it (‘when I am reading the menu outside of the restaurant’).

Making a detailed plan like this, which is contingent on situational cues, allows changes to be made if necessary – in this case, because the menu has been checked for healthy options before entering the restaurant, the diner can choose to move on if there are no healthy options on the menu (rather than be forced to choose an unhealthy option once seated).However, while they allow flexibility, they also tap into ‘good’ automaticity – the person does not need to think or deliberate too much about what to do next – there are specific ‘if-then’ rules to guide the way.

Implementation intentions have been used to successfully influence behaviour relating to speeding (Elliot & Armitage, 2006), consumer habits (Verplanken & Wood, 2006), and increasing the amount people use public transport and buy organic food (Bamberg, 2002). Interestingly, in Bamberg (2002), combining the implementation intention with a financial incentive did not add to the strength of the manipulation. The Bamberg manipulation to increase bus use was very simple – some people were asked to make a specific plan about a day and time for taking a new bus route to university, whereas others were just asked to commit to using it (at some point).

Implementation intention-based campaigns have a proven track record of bridging the intention-action gap – so they make any planned changes in behaviour more likely to be realised.

Two examples of Implementation Intentions

Goal: To get bus to work on Thursdays and Fridays

Implementation Intention: IF Weds or Thurs eve, THEN set alarm clock early enough to allow extra time to get to work. IF Weds or Thurs eve, THEN have shower to save time in morning. IF raining, THEN take umbrella for walk to bus stop.

Goal: To improve insulation in home

Implementation Intention: IF dusk, THEN close all curtains in house. IF draft coming under door, THEN write a note to buy draft excluder on the weekend, and stick it on notice board. IF cold near doors, THEN fill unused keyholes etc with tissue paper.


Bamberg, S. (2002). Effects of implementation intentions on the actual performance of new environmentally friendly behaviours – results of two field experiments. Journal of Environmental Psychology 22, 399-411.

Elliot, M.A. & Armitage, C.J. (2006). Effects of implementations on the self-reported frequency of drivers’ compliance with speed limits. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 12, 108-117.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

Verplanken, B., & Wood, W. (2006). Interventions to break and create consumer habits. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 25, 90-103.

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