The Intention-Action Gap

Often, there’s a disconnect between what we intend to do and what actually happens. We might want to go to the gym but opt to stay in bed or plan to improve our diet but never get to it. Not following through on our intentions can be the difference between a great idea and a great execution, keeping us from achieving our goals in the job search.

Our behavioural biases and procrastination can trigger this gap. We tend to prefer immediate gratification over long-term, positive outcomes- for example, opting for the immediate satisfaction of a chocolate bar over choosing to eat healthily. Sometimes, this gap between our intentions and actions happens because we’re too ambitious when setting our goals.

Applying the Intention-Action Gap to the Job Search

Our motivation heavily drives our success in our job search. How hard we look for work depends on several factors, like our level of patience, self-control, willpower and belief that our job search will yield results.  

This doesn’t mean that only those of us with low motivation will be the only ones to struggle with this gap. Even if we have strong intentions, we might mistakenly believe our intentions automatically translate to actions- overlooking the tools and resources we need to complete our tasks.  

How to Eliminate the Intention-Action Gap when Job Searching

Creating routines is critical in bridging the gap between your thoughts and behaviours. When actions become automatic, we begin to do them without thinking. Sticking to a routine isn’t instantaneous, but with the help of ‘commitment devices,’’ we can make the process less challenging. We will look at three of the many commitment devices: ‘Implementation Intentions,’ Communicating Commitment,’ and ‘Mental Contrasting.’

Implementation Intentions

While we often have good intentions to take action, our environment or something about the task prevents our intentions from becoming a reality. In this case, implementation intentions can be great tools for conquering procrastination. An implementation intention is a decision you make for how, when and where you plan on doing something, like, engaging in your job search.

An example of an implementation intention can be a simple statement like:

On Monday at 10 am, I'll schedule a time to research industry events and networking opportunities to attend.

By making this declaration, you let the circumstance dictate your actions rather than your motivation. When you automatically understand what to do if certain situations occur, taking that action starts to become automatic and easier to complete.

Communicating Commitment

Most of us want others to see us doing the right thing. Sharing your intentions with someone is a great way to be held accountable for achieving them. Communicating your commitment to someone else pushes and motivates us to achieve our goals to maintain a positive self-image.  

Having a mentor or a coach during a job search is a great way to stay motivated and hold yourself accountable. Your mentor can directly or indirectly encourage you, checking in with you periodically to ensure you’re keeping up the good work. Other people who can help you stay on top of your goals are family members, partners, and even trusted colleagues.

Mental Contrasting

We all know the saying, “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

Often, we fantasize about the future we want without considering our current reality. Researchers call this ‘indulging.’ When we indulge in the future, the false sense of success we give ourselves reduces our motivation, and we don’t feel the need to change our approach to reaching our goals. Negative indulging, or ‘dwelling,’ happens when we ruminate about obstacles and challenges. When we dwell, we have difficulty imagining a positive outcome.

Award-winning behavioural scientists have shown that ‘Mental Contrasting’ can help us anticipate obstacles and increase our commitment. When we think about potential barriers, we can predict what might occur and plan for them. By combining ‘Implementation Intentions’ with mental contrasting, you can create an effective plan for achieving your goals.

Here’s an example:

This week, I will connect with five ‘second-degree’ connections to learn more about my target role.

What obstacles might stop you from achieving that goal?

  • I reach out and get no response
  • I reach out and get rejected
  • I get discouraged by the process

Create an “if-then” statement for each scenario to plan for any obstacles.

If I reach out and get no response, I'll remind myself not to take it personally. Now might not be a great time for them, so I’ll schedule a follow-up in 3 weeks and look for a warm introduction from a 1st-degree connection.

Building Confidence with Small Wins

Believing in your abilities and capabilities (self-efficacy) is critical to overcoming the intention-action gap. Self-confidence in what we can achieve can increase our belief that we can act on our intentions. This isn’t just wishful thinking – research shows a correlation between your perception of your capabilities and your actual performance. Job seekers who think positively and have confidence in their abilities will likely see positive job search outcomes.

Final Thoughts

The intention-action gap is a common challenge experienced by all of us. In the job search, this gap can be immensely damaging, causing our job hunt to grind to a halt. Planning and preparing for your search can be a huge help but creating positive habits is the key to action. Setting goals is crucial to holding ourselves accountable- so is finding someone else to help us along the way. Finally, embracing self-efficiency is the glue that binds this all together.

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