We sure do talk a lot about goals in this industry. Performance goals, engagement goals, career goals, personal goals.
Goals can be great: the clear definition of success tells me what I’m striving for, and gives me a finish line to cross so I know I’ve made it. Goals are also, in some fundamental sense, about being unhappy with where I currently am: there is something better ahead, and I’m not there yet.
Where’s the space for slow improvement? What if my aspiration doesn’t have perfectly defined edges? What if want an approach that gives me a clear path forward, while also allowing space for setbacks and recalibration? I want to acknowledge that changing behaviors and habits is hard, and that temporary dereliction is not permanent failure. I want a framing that encourages me to pursue grace in difficult times.
Screw setting goals. Let’s talk about setting intentions.
Goals are outcome-focused. They’re about striving, reaching, and putting attention on a theoretical future state.
Intentions, in contrast, are behavior-focused. An intention is a declaration of desired conduct, a statement about how I want to act as I move through the world, right now.
With something as concrete as a goal – “I’m going to run 4 miles with good form this morning” – the outcome is black and white: either I ran 4 miles, or I did not. (Reader, I did not.) There are so many reasons to not run 4 miles: fatigue, a wonky hip, MY EARS ARE REALLY COLD. But the goal does not care. The mileage remains un-run, the finish line uncrossed. The moment I turned around at the little bog instead of going all the way to the decomposing woodchuck, this morning’s run became a failure.
What if, instead of setting a goal, I set an intention: “I will run without hyper-extending my knees”? It doesn’t look very different from a goal. Here’s the crux, though: the moment I realize I have abandoned my intention, I can pick it back up again and continue moving forward. I realized at some point that I wasn’t bending my knees enough on a downhill stretch. I changed my behavior, and I kept going.
We can choose intentions over goals in all kinds of places in our life and work. Are you carrying burdens that don’t serve you? You can choose to put them down. If, three months from now, you realize you’ve picked them back up, you can put them down again. Living with an intention is a process, a long series of decisions, a continuous renewal and shedding.
A focus on intentions places a higher value on my behavior than on my outcomes. It ensures that both the journey and the destination align with my core values and beliefs. It ensures that the entire process, and not just the final product, is something we can be proud of.
If you want to learn more about the Buddhist roots of setting intentions, Phillip Moffitt’s Identify True Intention has been lodged in my brain and my heart since the first time I read it. “Forget judging yourself, and just work with the arising moment. Right intention is a continual aspiration.”