Goal-setting. Ugh, the very term still provokes a mild taste of disgust. I recall being in elementary school and given a pamphlet that outlined the goal-setting process. It appeared to be about a hundred pages long and asked us to define multiple short-term and long-term goals—four or five for each section. I distantly remember thinking: I’m ten years old, I don’t know where the heck I want to be in 5 years, let alone 10 years! Leave me alone, people! Something about it felt vague and distant. I felt like something was missing in that gap between where I was and where I could be in the future. There had to be something akin to goals but more tangible in the present.
I present to you: intention-setting. Now, I concede there’s a lot of as-of-yet unestablished new-age claims in this area—studies concerning the power of our thoughts and our ability to directly impact the natural world around us. All that is intriguing, but for now I’m talking about a slightly different type of intention-setting: an alternative—or rather, a complement—to goal-setting. It can be used as a definable, actionable process to regain focus and direction our lives. We’re not talking about using the power of our thoughts to magically create a new reality, but it’s a possible future side effect!
Setting the Table
Before we dive into intentions, let’s explore the world of goal-setting. We’re all familiar with the idea of a goal; it’s something we’re all supposed to have, strive towards, or, at least, make at the beginning of January. According to the experts that be, it should be specific, measurable, attainable, and with a clear timeline. The rigidity of a goal encapsulates its purpose; it aims to keep us on track towards ambitions we’ve deemed as priorities. The very act of sitting down and outlining our ideal projected future can help us lead a life with more purpose.
The downside of this practice is that it catapults us into the future, and we sometimes have a tendency to stay there, ever-striving for the life we want and subsequently neglecting the life we have. This is especially pertinent if we have lofty or lengthy goals which, for the moment, we are failing to realize. It can create a looming sense of failure—unideal in an atmosphere of achievement.
Another problem with goal-setting is that, although we’re presumably setting worthy goals, they’re inherently limiting. We’re focused on one outcome. One could argue there’s exceptional merit to this practice (the application of precision, focus, detail, etc). But when have we really been the best at deciding for what’s best for us? How many times have we been desperately striving for one thing (or person) only to realize later the negative impact it (or they) had on our life? I’m all for making mistakes…but sometimes we make obvious ones! Or perhaps we were striving after a business idea that ultimately failed, but lead to a completely different, but equally amazing, opportunity outside of the realm of our imagination. With goal-setting, for better or for worse, we have a narrow focus. Conversely, by focusing on the intent behind our desire, we remain open to a plethora of possibilities.
Setting and living your intentions allows you to focus on who you are in the moment, to recognize and live your values, and to raise your emotional energy, which in turn raises your physical energy. – Marla Tabaka
Goal vs. Intention
An intention can serve as a stopgap between where we are and where we want to be. It’s a friendly reminder and a guiding hand. So, what exactly is the difference between a goal and an intention? Let’s take the example of the doubtful, would-be entrepreneur worried about the inherent risk involved in a startup. He or she has been struggling for years to put together a business plan and reach the product launch stage:
The goal (something that can be measured in the future): I want to start a business by the end of this year.
The intention (something that can be done in the present moment): I want to recognize every moment I’m afraid and lean into the fear.
In this example, the intention of leaning into fear will serve useful for both general personal development and taking risks appropriate for a startup venture. The important difference is that intentions are reflected in daily interactions and reactions. We immobilize ourself if we stop at an initial reaction like fear and lambaste ourself for having the emotion in the first place. However, if leaning into fear is our intent, then being afraid is an acceptable way to be. It serves as a way to expand our operational realm. It’s stripped of its stigma and reframed as a learning experience.
The important difference is that intentions are reflected in daily interactions and reactions.
In fact, everyone has intentions; however, they are often subconscious, which makes them ironically unintentional. As a result, we’re conjuring situations we don’t want. For example, perhaps we have an unintentional intention (let’s call it an unintention) to avoid getting hurt in a relationship. We then proceed to build protective emotional walls, but in doing so we miss our chance to be vulnerable with our partner and essentially sabotage a potentially fruitful relationship. As such, we can see that our unintentions have the power to significantly impact our life. With clearly defined goals but unchecked intentions, we’re unwittingly creating roadblocks for ourself. The term self-sabotage comes to mind. Now, imagine a streamlined intention and goal setting process; that’s an illuminating combination. As we live out our intentions, they will lead us down a path curiously unknown to us; however, we can trust that it will reflect the values and priorities we hold dear.
With clearly defined goals but unchecked intentions, we’re unwittingly creating roadblocks for ourself.
Discovering our “why”
Intention setting is important because, well, it uncovers our intent. It sounds repetitive when phrased like that, but it’s a concept that gets lost in the rush for growth and achievement. We have goals and desires for our future, but why those specific ones? Are we chasing something that we think will make us successful in the eyes of society? Are we looking for status, love, or external affirmation? It’s worthwhile to take the time to sit down with our goals and figure out what’s motivating us. Perhaps our true personal goals will accord us a life that society reveres, but maybe we’ll have to push to create a life outside of the normal realm of society, resulting in some friction. However, if we’re aiming to be successful because we’re trying to please others, it’s going to be difficult to establish our daily intentions. Fixation on the approval of others is a sign that our main vision is out of focus.
Think of uncovering our intentions like approaching interpersonal communication. Oftentimes, the people we’re talking to are trying to “save face” and present the best version of themselves – not necessarily a true representation. Other times, we encounter people communicating with swathes of misdirection and passive aggressiveness. Both are difficult to see through. We then attempt to cut through the BS of what’s presented and discover the intent so we can respond accordingly. We must do the same with ourself; we need to cut through our BS and the stories we tell ourself and discover why we’re doing what we’re doing. What’s our intent?
A key part to building our intentions is taking ownership. We can’t change anything until we accept that we have the ability to do so. Now, we can’t make every thought and feeling positive and that’s not the aim because, frankly, it’s not realistic. However, our strength lies in where we choose to direct our attention. Taking ownership of our current situation means that we have power over our future situation. Most of life is out of our control, but we can attempt to regulate our inner sphere: our reactions, attitude and general outlook. It’s like Maya Angelou’s famous quote: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Ownership is claiming responsibility for the choices (and outcomes) in your life. – Caroline Zook1
So how do we know what kind of intentions we should set for our life? We need to take a thoughtful inventory and understand what we want to bring into our life. This year I downloaded the Year Compass workbook. It’s generally meant to be done at the beginning of the year (fresh start and all that), but can be done at any time. It’s no use waiting for the beginning of a new year, although it’s said that we’re more motivated at the beginning of something.2 So, start at the beginning of the quarter, the 1st of the month, Monday, or tomorrow morning. Start is the operative word. In the workbook, the first writing prompt is a review of the past year to get an objective look at what you’ve actually done and how you feel about it. Then, it directs you to take a look at who and what is important to you. Only after that process are we invited to outline our objectives for the upcoming year. It enables us to focus on our reality (since memory often plays tricks on us, painting a rosier or more depressing picture than is actually the case) and to start shaping our goals and intentions accordingly. Like this, we can start building and living an intentional life.
What kind of unintentions are you entertaining in your life?
What intentions would you like to set going forward?
- Zook, Caroline. The Ultimate Guide to Intentional Living. Wandering Aimfully.
- Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. PenguinRandomHouse: 2018.