February 19, 2022

Implementation Intentions for Breaking or Replacing Habits

I’ve spoken about implementation intentions before, but for the benefit of new visitors (welcome!) here’s a quick summary.

What are Implementation Intentions

Implementation Intentions are a strategy for helping you achieve your goals or start/change/replace an existing habit as part of changing your behaviour.

It takes the following form:

IF {situation} THEN I will {behaviour}


While a lot of articles focus on using implementations for starting new habits, e.g.

“IF {I go out for lunch} THEN I WILL {order a salad},

they can also be used for replacing or stopping existing habits, which make up a sizeable proportions of people’s goals, such as stopping smoking or stopping the eating of unhealthy food.

So what evidence or research is out there that implementation intentions work for replacing or stopping habits? And how can I use them myself?

Do Implementation Intentions work for Breaking or Replacing Habits?

Google Scholar is often a great source for checking out claims on the internet (as Abraham Lincoln famously said!)

You can see if anyone has conducted any research on the topic and usually you can get an idea of whether the research supported or disproved the thing you want to try.

So what does it say about Implementation Intentions as a strategy to break habits?

There are a couple of well-cited (meaning other researchers have referenced this research in their own projects) papers that suggest that it works well for breaking and replacing habits.

One study looked at using implementation intentions to encourage recycling in a company and replacing the habit of disposing of rubbish to general waste.

They tested this by splitting the company into two groups: one used implementation intentions and the other continued as normal.

The results were quite impressive:

“Recycling behaviour was substantially improved in the facility as well as the implementation intention conditions in week 1 and week 2 and still 2 months after [the study]”

Do Implementation Intentions Work With All Habits?

If a habit is very strong, they may not be as effective. One study looked at using implementation intentions with strong habits - in this case, strong smoking habits. While the implementation intentions had an effect on more moderate habits, they didn’t always work with stronger habits.

Unfortunately, the evidence/research into breaking or replacing strong habits isn’t that clear at the moment.

How do I use Implementation Intentions?

It’s important to say that they’re not a panacea - if you’ve a strong habit that you’re trying to break, then it’s going to be hard no matter what technique or strategy you try.

But using them in the formula described above:

IF {situation} THEN I will {behaviour}

has been shown to help you break or replace your habits. An example might be:

IF I’m browsing Social Media for more than 10 minutes THEN I will shut away my computer and go for a walk.