This Year, Try Setting Intentions Instead of Goals
Goals are about what you want to do. Intentions are about who you want to be and why you chose your goals in the first place. The distinction goes deeper than meets the eye.
If you’re like me, you probably learned to set and pursue goals early on in life. For many of us, early childhood is the only time when it’s considered acceptable to follow your curiosity where it may lead you and do things ‘just because’: they’re fun, interesting, and engaging. At that age, it’s (still) considered normal to play for play’s sake. As formal schooling starts, goals trickle into our lives and barriers between “purposeful” and “time-wasting” activities tend to be erected. We are taught to set ‘worthy’ goals and work hard to achieve them. Be it good grades, a top spot in sports or academic competitions or later a job, career, house, or family - we spend our lives running towards the next milestone.
Never is our obsession with goals more visible than at the end of a year and the beginning of another. Then, in that liminal space between two arbitrarily designed chunks of time, humans usually feel pressed to draw the line and tally what has been achieved versus what is still to be done. It’s also a time when we vow to change habits: eat better, drink less, exercise more. Commitments are written and resolutions made, often dully abandoned by the time February rolls in.
Why do we care about goals so much?
We associate goals with purpose and often make the act of setting and pursuing them the hallmark of a meaningful life. They also become a cornerstone of our identities. Having goals and working to achieve them is taken to mean you are an industrious, conscientious, hard-working, productive person who is engaged in life. Not having goals is a sign of worry - it suggests you’ve lost your motivation, drive, passion.
If goals are vital to living a fulfilled life, then how come so many of us, when achieving one goal, immediately feel compelled to set the next one? How come so many of us seem incapable of relaxing into the joy of having arrived, before setting out to the next destination? And how come so many of us seem to have forgotten how to do things that simply bring us joy, with no immediate goal in mind - just like we did when we were young - and instead seem to over-value that which comes with struggle and pain, as long as it leads to a ‘worthy’ goal?
Why do we go through all this trouble? What is it that we’re really chasing?
More than a decade ago I was forced to reckon with these questions after having achieved all my life’s goals and suddenly found myself facing an ocean of meaninglessness, which pushed me into the darkest night of the soul I have ever known (a story I wrote about here). As I walked through that shadowy valley, I first heard the word “intentions” used as an alternative to “goals” and I was intrigued. Was this just a semantic difference or more?
Intentions, it turns out, capture the reason we set goals in the first place. They point towards the beliefs, assumptions and worldviews that inform our drive towards the next milestone. William Torbert sees Intention as his fourth territory of experience - with the other three being the outside world, one’s behaviour and one’s thoughts that inform behaviour. He sees intention as the foundational energy behind our thoughts and behaviours and the capacity to hold awareness of our intention as a hallmark of vertical development.
Once I understood this distinction, I became fascinated to investigate the intention behind many of my goals. Why did I believe a certain goal was important? What was my intention in pursuing that particular outcome?
As it turns out, not all goals are made equal. Some hide protective intentions. Like that relationship we seek because it’s safe or because we’re terrified of ending up alone. Or the job we crave because we’re desperate to achieve financial security. Other goals are fuelled by creative intentions. The project we’re pursuing because we’re incredibly curious and passionate about the topic. The move to a different country that comes from a deep need to savour more of what life has to offer and explore a different way to be in the world.
As years went by, I stopped setting goals and started setting intentions instead. Who am I hoping to become versus what am I planning to do?
I started more consciously checking in with myself: Do I want this particular thing out of fear or love? By setting this goal am I trying to run away from something I dread or step towards something I aspire to?
I’ve started questioning the very idea of New Year’s resolutions. Why do I want to lose weight? What’s the intention? Is it perhaps that I want a healthier body? How do I balance health and joy? Could I honour both my love of good food and my care for myself? Do I want to exercise more but also dread the pain of forced physical movement? What kind of exercise might feel good to me WHILE I’m doing it, not just AFTER?
Slowly, I’ve developed a year’s end routine that is less of a tally and more of a reflection and one that is mostly focused on my growth as a human and less on what I have (or have not) accomplished. If you’re still not sure how to tell apart goals from intentions, here’s my working list of distinctions (not an exhaustive one, just a starting point to get your thinking going).
I have found playing with intentions (versus goals) to be quite a powerful developmental exercise. It freed me up to become more attuned to the role synchronicity plays in life. I’m less concerned with rigid steps and plans of action and more open to stepping in a direction generally aligned with my intentions while welcoming opportunities when they arise.
It’s helped me change my relationship with time - from being stuck in Chronos (planning, deadlines, lists) to becoming more attuned to Kairos (being present with what is while sensing the right time to act (or not act) - something that Bill Torbert calls “timely action”).
Privileging intentions over goals has also helped keep me honest, as it’s always forcing me to ask myself: Why is this important to me? Why do I want this? What do I stand to lose if I fail to achieve this? How is this aligned with my deepest values? Who am I becoming as I make this decision?
Finally, this shift from goals to intentions has brought me closer to that joie de vivre I experienced as a child when I didn’t feel guilty playfully pursuing what drew my interest and sparked my curiosity. It made me braver in experimenting and less attached to immediate “success” and took away some of the anxiety that comes with the fear of missing one’s goals. I use intentions as a compass, but I no longer fear there is but one “right” path to take.
Here is a little tool I use at the end of every year to reflect on how I’ve grown as a human over the past twelve months and who I would love to become by the end of the next twelve. I hope it sparks some reflection for you too and I’d love to learn how you go about setting direction for your own lives. Do you favour goals, intentions or something else? How do you decide what is important? How do you keep momentum and meaning without creating pressure in your life? Feel free to share your wisdom in the comments.
Every year, for the past nine years, I’ve shared my intentions setting process with people from around the world, in a fun, playful workshop that has become a tradition. We use tools from active imagination and ‘timeline therapy’ to identify and set our intentions for the next year visually and creatively. If you’d like to learn more or join me for the 2024 edition of the Intention Setting workshop, you can book your place here for the workshop in English and here for the one in Romanian.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you are curious to dive more deeply into learning about Vertical Development and how it might impact your work and life, check out our online library of webinars and courses accredited by the International Coaching Federation.
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