Does forming implementation intentions help people with mental health problems to achieve goals? A meta-analysis of experimental studies with clinical and analogue samples

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People struggle to act on the goals that they set themselves, and this gap between intention and action is likely to be exacerbated by mental health problems. Evidence suggests that forming specific if-then plans (or ‘implementation intentions’) can promote goal attainment and a number of studies have applied such techniques in clinical contexts. However, to date, the extent to which planning can help people with mental health problems has not been systematically examined.


The present review used meta-analysis to investigate the effect of if-then planning on goal attainment among people with a DSM-IV/ICD-10 diagnosis (i.e., clinical samples) or scores above a relevant cut-off on clinical measures (i.e., analogue samples). In total, 29 experimental studies, from 18 records, met the inclusion criteria.


Excluding one outlying (very large) effect, forming implementation intentions had a large-sized effect on goal attainment (d+ = 0.99, k = 28, N = 1,636). Implementation intentions proved effective across different mental health problems and goals, and in studies with different methodological approaches.


Taken together, the findings suggest that forming implementation intentions can be a useful strategy for helping people with mental health problems to achieve various goals and might be usefully integrated into existing treatment approaches. However, further studies are needed addressing a wider range of mental health problems.

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