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Making intentions concrete - Trigger-Action Planning

25 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 01 December 2016 08:34PM

I'll do it at some point.

I'll answer this message later.

I could try this sometime.

For most people, all of these thoughts have the same result. The thing in question likely never gets done - or if it does, it's only after remaining undone for a long time and causing a considerable amount of stress. Leaving the "when" ambiguous means that there isn't anything that would propel you into action.

What kinds of thoughts would help avoid this problem? Here are some examples:

  • When I find myself using the words "later" or "at some point", I'll decide on a specific time when I'll actually do it.
  • If I'm given a task that would take under five minutes, and I'm not in a pressing rush, I'll do it right away.
  • When I notice that I'm getting stressed out about something that I've left undone, I'll either do it right away or decide when I'll do it.
Picking a specific time or situation to serve as the trigger of the action makes it much more likely that it actually gets done.

Could we apply this more generally? Let's consider these examples:
  • I'm going to get more exercise.
  • I'll spend less money on shoes.
  • I want to be nicer to people.
These goals all have the same problem: they're vague. How will you actually implement them? As long as you don't know, you're also going to miss potential opportunities to act on them.

Let's try again:
  • When I see stairs, I'll climb them instead of taking the elevator.
  • When I buy shoes, I'll write down how much money I've spent on shoes this year.
  • When someone does something that I like, I'll thank them for it.
These are much better. They contain both a concrete action to be taken, and a clear trigger for when to take it.

Turning vague goals into trigger-action plans

Trigger-action plans (TAPs; known as "implementation intentions" in the academic literature) are "when-then" ("if-then", for you programmers) rules used for behavior modification [i]. A meta-analysis covering 94 studies and 8461 subjects [ii] found them to improve people's ability for achieving their goals [iii]. The goals in question included ones such as reducing the amount of fat in one's diet, getting exercise, using vitamin supplements, carrying on with a boring task, determination to work on challenging problems, and calling out racist comments. Many studies also allowed the subjects to set their own, personal goals.

TAPs were found to work both in laboratory and real-life settings. The authors of the meta-analysis estimated the risk of publication bias to be small, as half of the studies included were unpublished ones.

Designing TAPs

TAPs work because they help us notice situations where we could carry out our intentions. They also help automate the intentions: when a person is in a situation that matches the trigger, they are much more likely to carry out the action. Finally, they force us to turn vague and ambiguous goals into more specific ones.

A good TAP fulfills three requirements [iv]:
  • The trigger is clear. The "when" part is a specific, visible thing that's easy to notice. "When I see stairs" is good, "before four o'clock" is bad (when before four exactly?). [v]
  • The trigger is consistent. The action is something that you'll always want to do when the trigger is fulfilled. "When I leave the kitchen, I'll do five push-ups" is bad, because you might not have the chance to do five push-ups each time when you leave the kitchen. [vi]
  • The TAP furthers your goals. Make sure the TAP is actually useful!
However, there is one group of people who may need to be cautious about using TAPs. One paper [vii] found that people who ranked highly on so-called socially prescribed perfectionism did worse on their goals when they used TAPs. These kinds of people are sensitive to other people's opinions about them, and are often highly critical of themselves. Because TAPs create an association between a situation and a desired way of behaving, it may make socially prescribed perfectionists anxious and self-critical. In two studies, TAPs made college students who were socially prescribed perfectionists (and only them) worse at achieving their goals.

For everyone else however, I recommend adopting this TAP:

When I set myself a goal, I'll turn it into a TAP.

Origin note

This article was originally published in Finnish at kehitysto.fi. It draws heavily on CFAR's material, particularly the workbook from CFAR's November 2014 workshop.

Footnotes

[i] Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.

[ii] Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.

[iii] Effect size d = .65, 95% confidence interval [.6, .7].

[iv] Gollwitzer, P. M., Wieber, F., Myers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2010). How to maximize implementation intention effects. Then a miracle occurs: Focusing on behavior in social psychological theory and research, 137-161.

[v] Wieber, Odenthal & Gollwitzer (2009; unpublished study, discussed in [iv]) tested the effect of general and specific TAPs on subjects driving a simulated car. All subjects were given the goal of finishing the course as quickly as possible, while also damaging their car as little as possible. Subjects in the "general" group were additionally given the TAP, "If I enter a dangerous situation, then I will immediately adapt my speed". Subjects in the "specific" group were given the TAP, "If I see a black and white curve road sign, then I will immediately adapt my speed". Subjects with the specific TAP managed to damage their cars less than the subjects with the general TAP, without being any slower for it.

[vi] Wieber, Gollwitzer, et al. (2009; unpublished study, discussed in [iv]) tested whether TAPs could be made even more effective by turning them into an "if-then-because" form: "when I see stairs, I'll use them instead of taking the elevator, because I want to become more fit". The results showed that the "because" reasons increased the subjects' motivation to achieve their goals, but nevertheless made TAPs less effective.

The researchers speculated that the "because" might have changed the mindset of the subjects. While an "if-then" rule causes people to automatically do something, "if-then-because" leads people to reflect upon their motivates and takes them from an implementative mindset to a deliberative one. Follow-up studies testing the effect of implementative vs. deliberative mindsets on TAPs seemed to support this interpretation. This suggests that TAPs are likely to work better if they can be carried out as consistently and as with little thought as possible.

[vii] Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Topciu, R. A. (2005). Implementation intentions, perfectionism, and goal progress: Perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(7), 902-912.

Comments (26)

Comment author: nBrown 10 December 2016 04:28:29AM 3 points [-]

I often use this against the planning fallacy.

When: I'm quoting a time estimate: "I should be there at 2:15", "Hrmm we'll probably be done by 5" Then: Ah ha! How long did I take me to get there last time? or at least add 15 minutes.

Comment author: sen 03 December 2016 01:21:39PM *  1 point [-]

Reading through this, it seems completely obvious and intuitive, and yet I see a lot of "thumbs up" (or whatever the LW colloquialism is). For the sake of metaoptimization, I have to ask... Has this post actually helped anyone here? Reading through the comments, it seems again like everyone already knew this, and that people are just commenting with their own experiences. If this post didn't actually help anyone here, the obvious follow-up question would be whether the "thumbs up" signal is actually conveying the intended meaning.

Comment author: Sinal 08 December 2016 03:55:27AM 1 point [-]

I personally found this post to be quite insightful. I previously made plenty of vague goals that I never did, such as "apply for internships", "fill out this form", and shower more often." I have heard the advice "set specific goals" before, but the idea of turning vague goals into if-then" goals has never occurred to me before.

Of course, since I just read this post a few minutes ago, I don't know whether the idea actually translates into increased productivity or not.

Comment author: Viliam 05 December 2016 01:06:21PM *  1 point [-]

Even for people familiar with the big idea, there may be some new previously unknown details, such as that TAP can actually harm some people (and which ones specifically).

Also, it's worth repeating the basics. Sometimes people chase new epiphanies when they should apply the 80/20 rule instead. The upvotes may express the feeling that having the basics written well, and bringing them back to attention is useful.

But... yeah, even this article could be considered "yet another epiphany", unless people will actually use it in their lives. And we have no evidence that someone actually used it; only that many people liked seeing it.

I wonder how much would it take to bring this to more productive level; to actually make people use the stuff. For example, if the article at the end would repeat a specific sequence of steps people are supposed to take, and then encouraged people to post the results in top-level comments below the article.

EDIT:

So, here are a few examples for myself:

  • When I get to my job, I order a vegetable-based lunch.
  • When my child goes to sleep, I start exercising. (Specifically, the first step is that I bring a cup of water from kitchen, and open my exercise log.)

But it is also interesting to see some of my bad habits as a kind of TAPs installed by a malicious agent in my brain:

  • When I turn on the computer, I start the web browser and go to Facebook.
  • When I am sitting at the computer, and not sure what to do next, I also look at LessWrong and Reddit.
  • When I enter the kitchen, I look at the place where cookies are usually stored, and take one.
Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 06 December 2016 12:44:56PM 2 points [-]

But... yeah, even this article could be considered "yet another epiphany", unless people will actually use it in their lives. And we have no evidence that someone actually used it; only that many people liked seeing it.

I wonder how much would it take to bring this to more productive level; to actually make people use the stuff.

Real-life workshops and study groups. :-)

I'm not even kidding here. This is basically the reason for why you didn't get a writeup of this from CFAR earlier: actually teaching the stuff in person is so much more effective in getting people to use it than just explaining it online is.

Comment author: ChristianKl 04 December 2016 11:02:20PM 2 points [-]

The phrase TAP or trigger action planning has a specific meaning. If I chat with other people at my dojo, I can say: "You should make a TAP for the habit you want to adapt." Most people outside of this community wouldn't understand that sentence as it refers to a specific CFAR concept.

Having posts that explain core vocabulary of this community like "TAPs" and that can be linked is valuable.

As far as the actual content goes I didn't know that there was a study that showed that TAPs aren't helpful to people with socially prescribed perfectionism is useful knowledge that might change how I react if I talk to a person who falls in that cluster.

Comment author: sen 05 December 2016 06:56:57AM *  0 points [-]

Fair enough, though I disagree with the idea of using the discussion board as a repository of information.

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 December 2016 01:38:50PM 1 point [-]

Why?

This approach also has the advantage that different people can contribute their own thoughts and learnings around the concept.

Comment author: sen 06 December 2016 09:11:27AM *  0 points [-]

Information on the discussion board is front-facing for some time, then basically dies. Yes, you can use the search to find it again, but that becomes less reliable as discussion of TAPs increases. It's also antithetical to the whole idea behind TAP.

The wiki is better suited for acting as a repository of information.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 December 2016 05:55:24PM 1 point [-]

LessWrong isn't simply a discussion board. It's a blog/discussion board hybrid. Various posts do get read long after they are written.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 04 December 2016 01:10:29PM *  1 point [-]

Complete obviousness and intuitiveness would imply that you already make all of your goals into TAPs, and never think anything with a vague trigger like "I'll do this later". Is that the case?

Comment author: sen 04 December 2016 02:21:08PM *  1 point [-]

That's not what OP says, and it's also a non-sequitur. Obviousness and intuitiveness does not imply that all goals should be turned to TAPs or that vague triggers shouldn't be used. It's obvious and intuitive to anyone that's flown on an airplane that the Earth is spheroid, but that doesn't mean I should use geodesics to compute the best way to get the the grocery store.

TAPs are useful for people that have problems following through with intentions. OP mentions three example indicators of such problems. If you don't have problems following through, then there is no reason to "make all of your goals into TAPs" or "never think anything with a vague trigger". Putting effort into solving a non-problem is a waste.

To answer your question, hell no. It's clear why this would help certain people, but it's certainly not optimal for people that can look ahead a bit into a future, keep things in mind for later, or... you know, stick to things. The general idea behind TAPs is that people are lazy when they have planning left to do, and they can't remember to do things. Yes, I'll set up notes sometimes, but for the vast majority of things, my brain just reminds me without any explicit triggers. It's not like I feel lazy either, and I don't feel off-put by non-concrete goals, not even a little.

I'm satisfied with my level of productivity, I don't get discouraged by planning or non-concrete goals, and I don't have trouble remembering to do things. TAPs has nothing to offer for me other than ideas on how to model certain aspects of people's brains.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 05 December 2016 05:55:46AM 1 point [-]

Fair enough.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 04 December 2016 04:24:18PM 2 points [-]

"I'm satisfied with my level of productivity." That's very unusual, even for a person with a very high level of productivity, but it's a good attitude to have (and many people even with lower levels of productivity would benefit by having it.)

Comment author: RomeoStevens 04 December 2016 08:35:10AM 3 points [-]

In the balance of too many or too few obvious things posted, LW is almost certainly erring on the side of too few. A single repository of all the things smart people find obvious, cross checked with comments on subtle variations or criticisms seems like a good thing.

Comment author: jollybard 18 October 2017 01:44:50AM *  0 points [-]

This post has been very helpful for me, as I kept hearing about TAPs in rationalist circles without ever knowing what it meant. Even knowing what the acronym was didn't help at all (is it usually sufficient for people?).

This post, however, for all its faults (it gets too quickly at examples without first convincing me that I should care), serves as a good reference, if only for the fact that I never knew the concept already existed in mainstream science and was called "implementation intentions". I remember once searching for something of the sort and only finding biology stuff about animal instincts.

I'm aphantasiac. Visualizing things is completely alien to me. So, of course, implementation intentions do not seem obviously good to me. But I see now that they are useful and that I regularly use something similar, and I now believe that most people should use them.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 02 December 2016 01:14:21PM *  5 points [-]

Just tried to list my fully-adopted TAPs and found that they are all linked to my use of a smartphone todo app:

  • When I think of something that needs to be done at some point, Open the todo app and write it down.
  • When the thinking part of the morning is finished, Open the todo app.
  • When I'm idle, Open the todo app.
  • When leaving home or work, Open the todo app (maybe I forgot something I need to do while I'm here).
  • When I'm in the todo app looking at my current tasks, Snooze or hide any tasks that I can't do right now.

There's a TAP I'd like to adopt, but I can't report any success so far:

  • When I'm tired / in zombie mode, Open the todo app (and do some tasks tagged as @zombie).
Comment author: NatashaRostova 02 December 2016 10:37:52PM 2 points [-]

The zombie one is good, and something I will try. Sometimes when it's 10pm and I'm pretty tired, I'll try to work on some personal high-functioning project/code, and get 3 minutes of work done by 11pm. On the other hand, if I used that time to read a book I could probably get more out o fit.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 02 December 2016 03:20:21PM 0 points [-]

"When I'm tired / in zombie mode, Open the todo app (and do some tasks tagged as @zombie)."

I would be surprised if anyone (not just you) can report substantial success with that particular plan or an analagous one. No system is going to force you follow it when the main thing you are interested in at the moment is "don't let anything make me follow a system."

Comment author: Lumifer 02 December 2016 04:38:37PM 2 points [-]

I understand "zombie mode" not as as an acute attack of akrasia, but as being in a low-functioning state (e.g. because you're sleep-deprived) so that you don't want to attempt anything complicated.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 03 December 2016 03:02:01AM 1 point [-]

I would suggest a different TAP for that situation: when you are sleep-deprived, go and look for a bed and get some sleep.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 04 December 2016 10:10:41AM 0 points [-]

I do have this one, but the trigger doesn't fire reliably. Sometimes I go to bed, sometimes I don't.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 04 December 2016 10:12:42AM *  0 points [-]

Yes, I meant a low-functioning state. My current todo app lacks tools for assigning contexts to tasks. When I switch to my own app (currently in development), I'll make a dedicated context for this type of tasks, e.g. @zombie - and will try to adopt the following TAP:

  • When in zombie mode, Open the todo app, turn on the @zombie context, and look at the list.
Comment author: RomeoStevens 02 December 2016 02:53:46AM *  5 points [-]

One frame that's proven useful for me: if I'm putting off something that I will definitely need to do at some point, and there's no obvious reason that one time is significantly better than others for it, then all I'm deciding is how many times I repeatedly have thoughts about it, all the while training myself with repetitions of thinking about a thing and then not doing it. This is a loss aversion frame, and therefore perhaps not perfect. But it has definitely spurred action.

Another is to keep adding structure until you can honestly say you would be shocked if the plan failed. This involves repeatedly adding things and checking with a premortem. Some add-ons:

  • A trigger

  • Breaking in to concrete next actions

^Obvious, but we can keep going

  • Connect concretely to goal

  • Napkin math of loss if not done

  • Clarify the win condition: what concrete sensory experience do you expect to have that will tell you you succeeded?

  • Clarify the loss condition: figure out the most likely ones and add new triggers that might help you recover

  • Building in a reflection trigger to check whether the plan needs to be modified

  • Make the task harder: easy tasks are boring, find something about the task you could potentially test of be curious about (and remember you can't bullshit yourself so it has to be genuine curiosity)

An example of combining several: TDT the task to make it more interesting. Do some napkin math on what the upper and lower reasonable bounds of value to you are and how much optimization would be approriate given that.

If at some point you are doing this and think to yourself "this is a stupid amount of scaffolding, I should just do the thing." and then you actually go do the thing, success! If the thing is so unimportant that it really isn't worth any scaffolding at all maybe check whether it is actually connected to your goals.

Comment author: Duncan_Sabien 01 December 2016 08:54:43PM 22 points [-]

I'd add onto this that over several years of teaching Trigger-Action Planning at CFAR workshops, our organizational conception of them has shifted a bit. These days, when I'm responsible for teaching TAPs, I highlight a couple of things more strongly than you have above:

  • TAPs are best used as a "summon sapience" spell. They're more valuable for noticing opportunities than for brute-forcing behavior change (e.g. a TAP of "when I feel the metal of the door handle in my hand, I'll LOOK AT the stairs" seems better than "when I feel the metal of the door handle in my hand, I'll TAKE the stairs). Once you're regularly noticing the absence of the behavior you want, it should either a) automatically correct itself, or b) be the inspiration for doing some tinkering with your motivation.

  • TAPs fail in two places: trigger doesn't fire, or action isn't chosen/taken. Thus I'd change your "three requirements" a little bit to be more like: has a specific, concrete, and relevant trigger; has a simple, effortless, atomic action; does actually further your goals.

Thanks for writing this up, especially including references and footnotes!

Comment author: lifelonglearner 01 July 2017 11:57:09PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for writing this up!