Programming Intentions 101

Posted on January 31, 2014.

Programming Intentions 101

What are those pesky things? Intentions? What do you mean? And how do we even know we're really setting them.

Take this step-by-step journey to programming your intentions.


  1. Take an unspecific goal, such as "I want to lose weight."
  2. Break it into something very specific that you want to actually do about it, the next step you need to take: "I want to exercise."
  3. Get more specific, by crafting an actual program to implement:
    • something specific (stretching)
    • actionable (I will slowly stretch for 5 minutes)
    • outwardly triggered (right after I get out of bed)
  4. Statement of intent (stated in English): "Every day when I get up from bed, I will slowly stretch for 5 minutes."
  5. Translate to the sensory language of the subconscious: picture yourself getting up from bed, feel yourself putting your feet on the floor, picture yourself starting your stretching exercises and continue the visualization until you think you can carry on without the help. Be detailed and emphatic about it.
  6. Then release it and have an attitude of curiosity about it. It's an experiment of "I wonder if I'll remember."
  7. If you forget, just adjust things and try again. Perhaps you should have visualized the exercise starting after your morning pee. Try again.

The Basic Intention Program Formula

Every intention has the basic format of "When (trigger happens) I will (perform action(s))." This is followed by as much full-sensory imagery as possible.

Getting Specific - preparation phase

We all do this: we have a broad idea of something we want to do, and we set a vague intention to do something about it. However, when we're living life on autopilot, the times for these vague intentions come and go without us even taking notice. When we're vague we doom ourselves to the habits and routines of our life and the new intention, no matter how "good" it would be for us, goes by the wayside. We didn't find a specific place to insert the new behavior into our routines.

So pick a goal, and dig in to get specific. Keep asking "So what? What are you going to DO about it?" until you get to something actionable. Then keep going with when, where, how...

"I want to lose weight."
"So what? What are you going to DO about it?"
"I am going to exercise."
"So what? What are you going to DO about it?"
"I am going to start with stretching exercises."
"Ok. When?"
"When exactly?"
"When I get out of bed."

Perhaps there's no specific equipment needed, so we don't need to think ahead to plan for tools, etc. However, if you don't have a specific stretching routine, perhaps one would say "How?" and come up with "With the DailyBurn app on my iPad." or some similar tool, a specific video, or "The stretch routine I remember from dance class." Get as specific as you can. You can't get too specific.

Statement of Intent - psychological pseudocode

When a computer programmer sits down to add a feature to an existing program, she needs a specific end-goal for the feature, and she also needs a very specific and more narrow intention for what she can accomplish in one sitting, otherwise absolutely no new programming will get done. With a little analysis, she can consider various places where this new feature can be added to what already exists. A feasible place to hang the new code. Then next she has a "pseudocode" of what she intends to do: something in plain English in her head or on paper that outlines the vague steps of what she's going to do. Next she has to translate her English steps into actual computer code that will be understood by the machine. It might look like: "When the user clicks the Facebook icon, open the Facebook app." 10 lines of pseudocode can easily become 100 lines of computer code: English is an abstract language, computer code is strict, specific, and procedural.

That's exactly what works with intentions. If you want to remember to drop off a package at the post office, translate the English message of "When I get ready to leave, I will remember to bring the package to the post office." into the language of the subconscious: visualization. Picture the moment you pick up your coat to head out the door (unless it's summer, then you picture the moment you grab your keys). Include the feeling of weight, touch, temperature of the items you're holding, etc. "Oh! Yeah," you hear yourself saying, "I have to mail that package!" Yes, get that specific. Feel the keys biting gently into your hand, hear your mind remembering, hear your voice and feel yourself exclaiming out loud. The more visceral, the better. The subconscious speaks in the language of dreams: actions, activity, sensory, imagery. You have to deliver your intention program in the language of the subconscious or it will not work.

Computers and the subconscious do not understand English. English is full of layers of abstraction from the reality, and you can't program in English.

Triggers - when

"When Joe walks into the apartment, I'm going to yell 'Surprise!' and hand him the ring." is pseudocode. Project (visualize, hear, sense) the trigger happening in your mind when you create the program: feel yourself waiting, see the walls, door, furniture. Hear the key in the lock of the door, and you get ready to spring up. You watch the door start to swing inwards, and you jump up and yell!

Triggers can be emotions, if you can really *feel* the emotion when creating the program. "When I feel angry" works. It is best, however, to start off with concrete external triggers, such as "When I sit down at my computer" which will work whenever you sit down at YOUR computer, since that's what you're likely to visualize. It might not work if you sit at someone else's computer.

I had a program that was "When I see the clock in the 9:xx am range, I will take my birth control pill." -- it worked really well for a few months until I changed my routine a couple times and I wasn't at the computer by 10am! That's why I caution people about using it on anything REALLY important. I soon found the ability to set alarms on my computer, and delegated much of the really important reminders to the computer. However, it worked for MONTHS, which can be terrific when installing new steps into a routine.


An action is strong, challenging and specific. Not a "try my best" but an "I will do". Imagine our programmer chick sitting down at the computer and adding a feature that "might work" -- "When the user clicks on the Facebook button, maybe it will open the Facebook app." -- that's not effective! She sits down to program something that WILL work, and if it doesn't work, she debugs it until it does work. That's how it's most effective. When you start out with your actions, pick ones where you can immediately judge success or failure so that you can go tinker with the program or let it go. Try it on things you can easily self-monitor, that are definitely within your control.

Actions are positive, proactive, do-able things. You can make an intention to REMEMBER something, so if you want to remember not to do something, the action is the REMEMBERING, not the "not-doing something". However, it's best to use redirection techniques or remove the problem altogether.

Say you just went off gluten. You usually automatically reach for the bread at a restaurant. You have some choices for how to program the intention:

  • "When there is bread on the table, I will become self-aware and remember not to eat the bread." Note the "become self-aware" as a tip-off to visualize becoming mindful and intentional when bread is around. This alone may stop you from reaching for the bread out of habit.
  • If you're going to be eating alone, you can picture the waiter bringing the bread to the table, and politely refuse the bread i.e. "When the waiter brings the bread to the table, I will ask him to please take it away." followed by appropriate imagery.
  • If you're eating with a gluten-enabled person, "When there is bread on the table and I feel myself reaching out for it, I will just drink my water instead." When you translated into imagery, feel your arm reaching for the bread, and deliberately redirect your hand to your glass of water and take a drink. Beware: if you're in a state that doesn't automatically serve water at your table, this may not work; you would have to set an intention to remember to ask for water when you first sit at the table.

I have had a lot of success with programs that implement: "When x happens, I will become sufficiently self-aware to remember that I don't want to do y." (the imagery makes more sense than the English): I can get very detailed in experiencing the problem, and feeling the thought that I don't want to do y coming up. I've used it to break bad habits, abreactions, to reduce psychological triggers from PTSD, etc. The outcome is a positive action ("Remembering"). Because I include getting back into a self-aware state of being, it has the extra benefit of bringing me back into the present (like a mindfulness meditation) if I'm on autopilot and my mind has wandered. It also allows me to be flexible, because it's an inward thought I can choose to act on rather than an external action.

So I mostly use implementation intentions to craft mindfulness and mindsets. In this way, intention programming is excellent in self-help work. It's still always an experiment in learning. When dealing with deeper and more troubling psychological issues, placing the triggers is tricky, because pinpointing triggers is like playing a shell game at times. If you come at it from an experimental or playful mindset, it can be fun even while it's tricky.

Programming in the Colorful Language of the Subconscious

When you visualize, really close your eyes and get into it as if it's a full-scale production. Visualization includes all the senses: touch, smells, sights, sounds, anything you can reasonably expect to be present during the trigger and action phases.

However, don't go overboard. If you embellish by adding "Eye of the Tiger" playing on the overhead speakers and instead "Send in the Clowns" is playing, your trigger may not go off!

I can expect that next Thursday when I come back from my meeting I will have a coat on: It's February in NY! But the intention might be erased in the spring and then poor Cameron may go unfed. So I'm tying the intention to the binder I take with me to the meetings. To be extra-careful, I program a SEPARATE intention: if I decide to change binders for this meeting, I will remember to re-program the snake-feeding intention. Maybe that one is too vague, but setting that protective intention is better than doing nothing.

The subconscious is excruciatingly literal! Being literal in a sensory language can be tricky. So be as specific as possible without adding in extraneous minutiae that may change in the real situation. And again, don't program anything terribly important until you understand how this technique works for you and your subconscious.

When you're done visualizing the program, release the visualization and go on with whatever you want to do in life. If you think about it, just wonder whether it will work, and go on with things.

If you want you can rehearse it multiple times, or repeat the intention-setting procedure. It may strengthen it.

Removing Intention Programs

Studies have shown that you can easily remove these programs: release the intention and trigger. The urge to act on the programmed triggers is usually gone within 24 hours.

Ideas & examples

  • remembering to take out the garbage
  • remembering to do something when you get home
  • remembering to feed the snake
  • adopting a new habit of actually flossing your teeth after you brush -- yeah, this means you
  • When someone says "Remind me later to do y." I set myself an implementation intention. Usually it happens when I'm out of the house, away from the computers, etc. so I program "When we walk into the house, I will remember to remind them of y."

I actually did forget to feed the snake yesterday! I should have set an intention:

Cameron is not my snake, but I'm the snake nanny. Cam is supposed to be fed once a week on Thursdays, but I have a standing Thursday morning meeting and it disrupts my normal routine. However, there's a specific binder I always bring with me to the Thursday morning meetings. So every Thursday morning, I come back from my meeting and can actually picture myself putting that binder on my desk. So I picture myself walking to my desk, putting that specific binder down on my desk and a flash in my mind of the snake in his tank. Then I picture myself walking into the bedroom and getting the feeding supplies out from where we store them. Starting the feeding routine by getting out the supplies should be enough, so I stop the visualization there.

I know that I'm going out to lunch at Limoncello in Goshen in a couple weeks. I know what the restaurant looks like, I can imagine myself looking over their menu. Instead of "I want to go on a diet" being my intention, I'd rather get more specific and say "When I go out to eat at Limoncello, I'm going to order a salad platter with a vinaigrette dressing." Then I can create my program:

I walk into the restaurant, I hang my coat on the back of the chair and arrange my purse and meeting supplies. They ask what I want to drink, I ask for water with lemon. Then I pick up the menu, and I just look at the salad section. I don't even bother looking at the rest of the menu. I pick out a salad with a good grilled protein on it, something filling. I remember to ask about dressings, and ask for the vinaigrette dressing on the side.


  • In the beginning use short-term programs. Remembering to mail a letter, or to clean the toilet when you get home is easier than building more-or-less permanent habits. Try something that's going to happen in the next few hours or days to test it out. You'll want to be able to clearly see the program working so that it's encouraging. Once you learn from setting short-term simple programs, you can try more complicated programs.
  • Try to be relaxed about it. Look at this as an experiment or learning experience. You want to frame the situation with an overall mood that is light-hearted. Any anxiety about it will change brain chemistry and may interfere with the intention. Until you're good at programming your intentions, and build up trust that your subconscious will fulfill your intention programs, never use it for anything exceptionally important or with a huge emotional consequence.
  • If it doesn't work, there should be minimal consequences. Instead of getting down about it, just say, "Well, it didn't work that time, but let's try it again." The brain is a muscle, and communication between the conscious and subconscious is something that improves over time only when you're trying.
  • This information is based on the research of Peter M. Gollwitzer (offsite) and his article entitled "Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans" published in American Psychologist, July 99, pp. 493-503.

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