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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