Recently, we examined the problem of focus and attention in the lives of busy educational leaders like yourself. Schools, by nature, are busy places with many ongoing human interactions. Throw on top of that more technological distractions, stress-related distractions, and increasing pressures to perform and even the simplest tasks feel challenging to accomplish.

In a recent one on one meeting with a principal who is working on time management, I heard this.

Her: I was intending to get into classrooms today, but got distracted.
Me: What happened?
Her; I was getting ready to go into classrooms, and the phone rang. I should have ignored it,
but it was another principal, so I picked it up. Next thing you know, 30 minutes had gone
by. By that time, I had lost my focus. I know I needed to get into classrooms, so I decided to go out anyway. As I was leaving my office, I got stopped by my secretary, who had to fill me in on a situation with a family. After 15 minutes of that, I had really lost my focus on classrooms, so I went back to my office and sat there feeling frustrated.
Me: Hmm?

So you can see from this typical example that the principal had the intent but got derailed by some common distractions. While she had a goal and even put it into her calendar, she struggled to put her goal into action. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is covered with good intentions, but the environment in which we work has a lot of pull on our actions and influences us in subtle ways.

So how do we make our best intentions more actionable? The science of implementation intentions has a few tricks it can offer us.

Implementation Intentions
An implementation intention defines as an action-oriented statement you make to yourself using an If-Then stem. An implementation intention helps support our goals by being highly specific about when, where, and how you will engage an action. For instance, in the situation above, the principal could have set an implementation intention like, “If the clock hits 10:00, then I will gather may materials to get into classrooms. If I am needed, then I will tell people I already have an obligation.”

Implementation intentions have been studied widely, and research shows a more significant effect from using this strategy than just setting goals. So why do implementation intentions work?

  • They support goals but are more specific and intentional
  • Since they aim at the future when the time comes, the behavior is more readily activated and accessible. In a sense, you have already created a response.
  • Because you have created this response, the behavior becomes more automatic.
  • Because the behavior is more automatic, it helps you get started more efficiently and allows you to resist the temptations and distractions more easily.
  • The accessible response helps you disengage from ineffective strategies you have been using.
  • Last, since you have already generated a response, it helps saves you from depleting your willpower.

In more technical terms, “Goals stand a better chance of being realized when they are furnished with implementation intentions that link anticipated suitable opportunities to intended goal-directed behaviors. Implementation intentions delegate the control of goal-directed behaviors to specified anticipated environmental stimuli. This deliberate self-regulatory strategy makes use of the automatic control of the action.”

How To Develop Effective Implementation Intentions
To generate effective implementation intentions around distractions, you can use this simple process.

Step 1 Identify your most important goals for the day [Do two hours of in-class observations]
Step 2 Identify the potential distractions [people needing my attention, phone calls]
Step 3 Create If-Then Statements in your head [If the clock says 9:55, then I will gather my materials to observe classes. If somebody needs my attention then I will tell them I can get back with them after 12:00.]
Step 4 Write and rehearse

In our work, environments matter a lot and can easily pull us away from our intent. By using the simple strategy of Implementation Intentions, you can plan responses to your most pressing distractions. The simple planning of If-Then statements helps to generate an expected response and works for any goal. Try this strategy for a week and see if it makes a difference in dealing with distractions.

Until next time.

Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist. Vol. 54 (7), 493-503.