“I meant to do it. I really thought I was going to. I’m not sure what happened. I fully intended to do it.” If you’ve ever found yourself saying statements like these and falling into negative self-judgment and self-deprecation, you’ve experienced the intention-behavior gap in your life. This gap is the concept that describes the disconnect between intention and action.
There’s a general understanding that we want to make a change to our lifestyle, achieve our goals, do something different. But there’s also frequently shortcomings in meeting our goals and feelings of failure associated with not hitting objectives we set for ourselves. Research has shown that intention only successfully predicts 30% to 40% of health behavior changes.
Mark Faries, Ph.D., in a research paper published in 2016, suggests 5 variables important to understand in the intention-behavior gap: the motivation, the trigger, the response, the capacity, and the process. These variables may help us as we look for solutions to what’s keeping us from reaching our goals
The Motivation – Is this change for you or for someone else?
The Trigger – What made you decide to make this change?
The Response – Can you find a way to facilitate positive feelings and reinforcement along the way of making this change?
The Capacity – Is this change reasonable and sustainable given your current abilities and limitations?
The Process – Have you fully identified ‘the how’ of making this change?
When it comes to motivation, we need to find ways to make goals internally motivated. Internal motivation means we’ve selected and are working on goals that really matter to us. These aren’t provided by our family or health care physicians, but rather are goals that are purposeful and that we feel an internal commitment to. There may still be pressure to complete them, but that pressure should be internal. “I want to make smoke less so that I can be healthier” is a very different sentence than “my doctor wants me to smoke less so that I can be healthier.” Thus, as we work to make goals for change, we want to ensure that our goals are coming from within and reflect a change we want to see in ourselves.
The trigger describes the actual stimulus for change. A trigger to a weight loss goal may be seeing our weight on the scale or a practitioner letting us know we fall into the obese category on the BMI. A trigger to stop drinking may be family conflict or losing our job. Triggers aren’t necessarily bad, but they are our wake-up call that a change needs to happen. A trigger works for us when it conflicts with a value and that conflict can spark action. If I don’t care about my physical health, I may not mind a dentist telling me I have multiple cavities. But if I value my health and appearance highly, that trigger may tie into that value and spark change in my brushing/flossing habits. Therefore, when making changes, we want to find changes that align with our values and beliefs and can be used to reflect on how making changes ultimately will allow us to feel better about ourselves.
The response to our trigger, goal, or action becomes an ultimate predictor of sustainability. If we are told that we are overweight, that may cause an emotionally depressing response that actually locks us into staying that way. We don’t want to be there but the emotional feedback from our brain is negative and takes our energy way. A good way to encourage a positive response emotionally is by seeking out behavioral change that makes us feel good and focusing on that positive reward rather than a negative punishment. Looking not at our weight, but at how much weight we’ve lost could reframe into a number we feel better about. Similarly, it may help our response to not even look at numbers when it comes to weight and instead find physical activity to engage in that is fun for us and seek that out as a form of pleasure. This can reframe the goal and give us a positive response to that trigger rather than a negative response or self-judgment. Ultimately the response factor varies from person to person and it’s our responsibility to look at ourselves and figure out what works best for us.
Our capacity to change is reflected by how much energy we actually have to create change in our life. Studies have shown that even in individuals with high intentionality for change there is a split on follow-through that may be related to their overall capacity for change. It’s almost like a personal battery and if the change we are trying to make is taking up too much energy, our battery will deplete before we can accomplish it and change isn’t sustainable if it’s met at all. Luckily, we have found some ways to increase our capacity: exercise, healthy eating, mediation, prayer, gratitude work, affirmations, and time outdoors have all been shown to increase this capacity. It may be worth starting with goals to increase these activities and letting that become a domino effect to some of our larger goals over time.
The process stage is where all these variables come together. It’s the action behind everything else. We need to have our large goals “to be healthy” and under that umbrella are smaller goals “to exercise” and “to eat better,” and yet again underneath those goals are even more implied goals, “to get a gym membership, to have workout clothes, to have the time to exercise, to know what exercises to do at the gym, etc.” At the same time we have to navigate challenges and barriers that arise. To work on this goal may mean less time to watch television, not eating certain meals or foods, less time to spend with our family or at work. This complexity is an important facet of the intention-behavior gap as our goals start to conflict and we must weigh pros/cons and work within our support group to find a balance and compromise. The process stage is challenging as it forces us to look not just at our goals but to truly understand them and all the moving pieces that are present within behavioral change.
There’s no easy solution to the intention-behavior gap. If we notice we get stuck here frequently, however, this can be an important hurdle to discuss with members of your treatment team. A counselor or provider may be able to help you find internal motivation, reframe negative conceptions into positive outlooks, or find a more reasonable process. Together you can look at where stuck points exist and work on creating sustainable and actionable goals that align with your values and ultimately facilitate positive and lasting change.