Our behaviour is driven by habit. However, when we self-assess our own actions, we often perceive our actions are influenced by our internal state (such as mood or physical state) and not habit. Our perception then has us believing we’re being intentional.
For example, I fidget with my fingernails whenever I am nervous. It’s a “habit” I do almost unconsciously. To change this, I created an intention to not and instead do something else when I feel nervous. I am being intentional to try and stop my fidgeting and save my fingers.
However, in my example, I actually misinterpreted the influences of my fidgeting behaviour and sent myself down the wrong path. My intention wasn’t intentional at all because my behaviour based on my nervousness brought about the wrong outcome.
This is what I call the Intention Gap. Misinterpreting what we perceive are the influences of our actions and where to apply our intention.
So, what can we do? By using situational intention interventions, you can guide your self-regulation to foster personal agency and enhanced intentional outcomes. Here’s how it works…
The Intention Gap
When we have agency, we believe we have the power to control our own actions, goals, or destiny. When we set intentions or when we are trying to be intentional, we believe we have the agency or control to direct our actions and behaviour for a purpose or goal. At the moment, my goal is to write 1500 words a day. To reach this goal, I have intentionally set up a daily writing schedule, allocating my time during the day to achieve that goal. I’ve used my agency to make this happen.
The problem, however, comes when I’m in the moment working towards my goal, and I misinterpret my behaviours. This is what I call the Intention Gap. It’s when we believe we should do one thing but attribute a change to something else.
For example, at 9am, when I’m supposed to start writing, sometimes I tell myself I need a little kick to get me going, so I make a coffee. No problem, however, my actions aren’t influenced by my intentionally set writing schedule, they’re influenced by my “need” for a morning kick.
Habits = Behaviour
Whether you realise it or not, your habits underlie your behaviour. They guide behaviour and can be the foundation for becoming more intentional.
Your habits aren’t influenced solely by the environment. They live in your memory and include the environment and other influences that trigger a habitual response. I have a habit of fidgeting. This is triggered not just by nervousness, but by memories, my environment and the situation I’m in when I start to fidget.
If we look at the definition of habit, it’s understood as a settled or regular practice. It’s a usual way of behaving. I have a habit of fidgeting with my fingernails when I’m nervous. But here in lies the intention gap. Am I aligning my fidgeting to my nervousness, or is it simply a habit based on an unconscious regular practice?
Psychologists point out that by default, when we engage in self assessment, we put more emphasis on introspective activities such as thoughts, feelings and emotions (Pronin, 2009). This, in turn, has us believe and interpret our actions as intentional (Rosset, 2008). My example above shows this. I assessed that my fidgeting was because of my nervousness. So my belief was that my action of fidgeting is intentional when I am nervous.
Another example is drinking coffee. I have a coffee every morning at 9am because I want to “wake up” and get to work. Maybe you have a coffee when you’re feeling tired. These feelings, emotions and thoughts are the descriptors we use to talk about our habits. The question is, do you perceive your behaviour is based on your internal state at that moment or on your habitual practice?
It’s an important question. If my self-assessment perceives my fidgeting as a response to feeling nervous, I may then try to self-regulate and move away from the nervous trigger. Meaning, I may intentionally find a way to stop being nervous. But if my self-assessment perceives my fidgeting as a habit, I may take a different path to curb my fidgeting. Slight difference, I know, but it may be the little change of thinking to help you become more intentional.
In 2022, researchers tested whether there was a potential tendency to overlook the influence of regulatory habits on their behaviour. They wanted to see if this misalignment during self-assessment was prevalent in their behaviour.
What they found was that participants overemphasised their inner state when they explained their behaviour and under-emphasised action as a habit. Moment by moment we tend to undervalue our habitual practices. Instead, we focus on our internal states, which ultimately influence our behaviour.
What we are doing here is preferring to exaggerate our internal states and use them to guide our behaviour while disregarding the role our small habits play. It’s not something I have thought about before, but this one little distinction is a great thinking skill.
Angela Duckworth and colleagues found that when people misattribute their influences on their behaviour, they end up focusing on applying an internal state strategy to be more intentional at the expense of identifying and applying a situational strategy that may be more helpful to not only change habits but behave more intentionally. (2)
Situational strategies include setting up an action to help guide your self-control during a specific situation. This goes straight to the heart of working with your situational habits. Duckworth uses the example of a partygoer who sits furthest from the bar. Or a student who leaves their phone at home when going to the library to study. Or a dieter who refuses the dessert menu when eating out at a restaurant. She explains how impulses grow stronger over time, so by implementing self-control strategies throughout the timeline of an impulse, one can change the habitual action.
Another paper, by Adriaanse and colleagues, reviews whether implementation intentions help us eat a healthy diet. They explain that those participants who focused more on their weight habits (and not their internal states) had a higher positive mood, suggesting that attributing behaviours is beneficial (3).
“It may be that well-being increases not only with habit performance (Heintzelman & King, 2019) but also with recognizing habits’ elusive yet pervasive role in daily life.(3)”
Adriaanse uses the term implementation intention much, in the same way, coaches use SMART goals. It needs to be a specific action, in a specific situation, that stipulates a goal-directed action. (3) For example, when I fidget, I will give myself a pat on the back for recognising the habit and then focus on how to change the action based on the situation.
This is being intentional to change a habitual action and not the internal state you may feel.
The key to implementing intentions, according to Adriaanse and colleagues, is specifying the situation in advance. Creating a visual, or whatever works for you, to identify the situation gives you the moment to act on your intention.(3)
The second piece of the puzzle is to link that moment with an if-then goal-directed behaviour. That way, you are not focusing on yourself, your inner state and instead focusing on the situation and the potential habit forming moment.(3)
It’s no surprise that routine brings about positive emotions. We tend to feel safer, more confident and have better well-being when we’re in routine situations. Habits play a huge role in many aspects of our everyday life and the routines that we practice. (4)
When we misattribute our behaviour and focus on the internal state versus the influences of situation, memory and environment in the habit itself, we can fall into the intention gap.
Just like my example of fidgeting. I had a think about it while writing this article, and actually, I realised I have a terrible habit of fidgeting. Not just when I’m nervous, but when I’m deep in thought and when I’m not busy with my hands. I’ve realised that the habit is unconscious, and that’s why it’s a habit.
Knowing now that I’ve been misattributing this habit to nervousness, I can now refocus on the habit itself, create a situational strategy, and implement an intention to help me foster my personal agency to change.
Now it’s your turn. What moment-by-moment habits do you have? What habits have you been attributing internal states to versus the situational aspect of the habit itself?
Whatever they are, try developing a situational intention so you don’t get caught in the Intention Gap.
Go Get Em!
(1) Mazar, A., & Wood, W. (2022). Illusory Feelings, Elusive Habits: People Overlook Habits in Explanations of Behavior. Psychological Science, 33(4), 563–578. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211045345
(2) Duckworth, A. L., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 35–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691615623247
(3) Adriaanse, M. A., Vinkers, C. D., De Ridder, D. T., Hox, J. J., & De Wit, J. B. (2011). Do implementation intentions help to eat a healthy diet? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence. Appetite, 56(1), 183–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2010.10.012
(4) Avni-Babad, D. (2011). Routine and feelings of safety, confidence, and well-being. British Journal of Psychology, 102(2), 223–244. https://doi.org/10.1348/000712610X513617