Goals or Intentions

Goals or Intentions?

The New Year is often a time for reflection, taking stock, and trying to move in new directions. I have to admit though, I’m not a big fan of the New Years’ resolution. I take a dim view of this for a few reasons, but mostly because when it comes to behavior change, I don’t think simply trying harder is an effective strategy. Worse, when we try harder an then fail, we often feel worse about ourselves. However, I do believe in our ability to change, and set new directions for ourself. I’d like to offer two alternatives to a New Year‘s resolution— or perhaps, different ways of thinking about making changes in your life.

When it comes to change, there are many obstacles that can prevent us from making the change we desire. Broadly speaking, I’ll divide this into difficulty with direction and difficulty with execution. To some extent, we all struggle with both, but usually, one or the other is more pressing.

Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.

-Mahatma Gandhi

There are many quotes that capture the same sentiment. In order to make change that helps us live life in a healthy, happy, meaningful way, we need to be headed in the right direction. When it comes to changes about the direction things are heading, I would offer the idea of setting new intentions. An intention is akin to an aim, or a direction. It is lite on specifics, and concerned more direction. For example, setting an intention to exercise more does not imply an absolute (exercising 45 minutes every day), nor does it offer a specific plan to get there. It does offer a path to follow, however, and a direction in which to move.

Setting an intention implies setbacks, but more importantly, I think it acknowledges that progress is often non-linear. It implies adaptability to unforeseen obstacles, and gives us a direction in which to move. It also incorporates the reality that we might not know exactly where this path will lead (how much more exercise, what counts as exercise), but that it is the direction and the effort that is important. If progress is being made, and the intention followed, then we are on the right track. Setting an intention is more akin to organizing priorities, of deciding what is important.

A goal, in contrast, is much more specific, much more concerned with execution. Goals imply that the direction has already been determined, and that the question to be answered is How do I get this done? This is different— we are not really in the realm of “where are we going?” Instead, a goal asks the question of “How do I get there?” For some people, goals are less helpful— particularly people that do not struggle with getting things done as much as deciding what is important in the first place.

Goals are often most helpful when they follow the well-known SMART framework. That is, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound. Specific spells out exactable what is to be accomplished, and measurable quantifies how that will be recorded. Achievable puts some bounds on the goal. Relevant is self explanatory (why set a goal that is irrelevant?) and time bound creates urgency and focus, forcing a plan. A SMART goal may be that that you will be able to run 5 miles without stopping by June 1. This is in sharp contrast to the intention of exercising more.

Neither a goal, nor an intention, is good or bad— better or worse. Instead, think of them as different tools for making change. Depending on what the challenge is that you are facing (and therefore, the change that is needed), they are complementary strategies that you can use. I find they these also tend to be somewhat personality dependent. Personally, I tend to dislike goals— once I know the direction I am headed in, I trust myself to prioritize and get it done on a day-to-day basis. However, for some people, this amount of flexibility is overwhelming, and having a specific plan laid out is the only way to actually get it done. What do you think? Goals or intentions (or both?).

Happy New Year!


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