The Road Paved with Good Intentions

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This month at the Institute of Coaching we featured a literature meta-analysis and a scientific webinar by Siegfried Greif on the theory and application of “implementation intentions.” Before we discuss the theory and the meta-analysis, let’s consider the nature of “intention.”

The wisdom of the inadequacy of intentions goes back a long way – the proverb – the road to hell is paved with good intentions– dates back to France in 1150. Philosophers have turned the study of intention into a broad conversation of a complex construct. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Intention, updated in 2018, explains that intention comes in three guises:

Intention for future – I intend to write this article to add to my writing contributions on coaching and change

Intention with which I act (the why) – My intention for this article is to help myself and others be more discerning and impactful when discussing “intention”

Intentional action – I am intentionally writing this article (in a conscious manner) to get readers thinking

Now let’s move to November 2018, when a meta-analysis of randomized clinical studies of “implementation intentions” arrived using physical activity as the target behavior. Here’s a quick tour of the paper.

Good intentions abound in physical activity

Even though regular exercise is a breakthrough lifestyle medicine, improving control of diabetes, brain function, emotional well-being and self-efficacy, while reducing risk of heart disease and cancer, in the Americas 43% of the population is not active. (The World Health Organization describes being physically active as engaging in 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes per week of intense physical activity). As a result, theoretical approaches to increase physical activity are of great interest to health practitioners and researchers.

Intention is not enough

Icek Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior proposed that intention, or motivation, is a main predictor of behavior. However, even strong intentions aren’t reliable: one study of people with fibromyalgia and strong intentions to exercise showed that only 32% moved from intention to action. As we know from our own lives, even with strong intentions, the desired behavior may not reliably happen. This is the “intention-behavior gap.”

Implementation intentions

This gap led researchers to separate the elaboration of intention to engage in a behavior from executing or implementing of the intention. A new theory was created: theory of implementation intentions. Implementation focuses on the when, how, and where of a behavior, aka action planning. To reinforce the action planning, the theory expanded to include coping planning, where one imagines potential obstacles and ways to overcome them.

Thereby, implementation intentions are the intentions to implement an action plan and a coping plan for a behavior that you intend to do in the future.

The study conclusions

The featured study is a systematic review of studies which tested the effectiveness of interventions that supported implementation intentions. The authors found 507 relevant studies and identified 11 for a meta-analysis. The authors concluded that interventions asking participants to develop implementation intentions were significantly more successful in increasing physical activity, compared to a control group. Most effective were interventions that helped participants develop action plans, strategies for coping with obstacles, along with reinforcing their implementation intentions (e.g. by phone or text) and adjusting the plans during the interventions.

Translation for coaches

Implementation intention activities are supported in coaching.

Coaching techniques designed to help others change behavior include action plans, coping plans, and ongoing reinforcement and adjusting of both – coaches are applying the science of implementation intentions.

We can go even further, now addressing four meanings of intention:

1.     I intend in the future to write an article on intention

2.     My intention for this article is to help myself and others be more conscious in using intentions

3.     I intentionally write this article to make a multifaceted construct easier to understand

4.     I intend to complete this article today, a rainy Sunday morning, while turning off email and avoiding distraction

Here’s to the many facets of good intentions! Let’s pave our paths forward with all of them.

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