Understanding How Intentions Inform Your Goals


“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”  —Robert Louis Stevenson

The clean slate that rings in with a new year is often the time when many of us are inspired to embark on new journeys of goal achievement. It is an unfortunate truth, however, in just a few days, weeks or months, many of us will be right back where we started—engaging once again in old, conditioned behaviors. Or perhaps, we’ll find the changes we made haven’t really changed how we feel on the inside and we’re right back to craving something new or different to come along and make us feel better.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that being reflective and establishing goals is a waste of time. It’s important to reflect, learn from the hindsight of 20/20 and try new ways of relating to our lives. But if we find ourselves continually looking at the future as if it houses the happiness we seek, perhaps we need to take a closer look at the intentions that inform our drive for change.

Goals are oriented toward future outcomes and shaped by planning and action. They are inherently outer directed, meaning we measure the success of our goals through their materialization in our outer lives. The challenge with anchoring our experience to goals is that they do not exist in the present moment. Goals create expectations about a future that, if not achieved, can become a source of disappointment and suffering. They pull us out of the present moment, and perhaps, ever so subtly suggest that right now is not good enough.

Intentions, on the other hand, live in the present moment. They are shaped by a personal value system and as such, are inner-directed, meaning they arise from within the internal landscape. They are the fuel behind our every action, whether we are conscious of it or not.

By their nature, intentions can be healthy or detrimental. Healthy intentions, which I like to refer to as heart-based intentions, promote well-being. They are grounded in the qualities of faith, mindfulness, love, generosity, wisdom and compassion. Heart-based intentions nourish our lives and the lives of everyone around us.

Unhealthy intentions, on the other hand, are based in negative qualities such as greed, fear, delusion and doubt. These intentions are self-focused, self-seeking and perpetuate a sense of separation from others.

Since intentions serve as the backdrop for the actions we take in life, taking time to understand our intentions is an important piece in developing and sustaining goals. What are the motivations driving us toward a goal? Are they anchored in values that are healthy for ourselves and others?

Because intentions arise in the present moment, we can check-in with our motivation at any time while working toward a personal goal. When we recognize our behavior has slipped away from our intentions, we can simply, and without judgment towards ourselves, learn what there is to learn from our digression and get back to actions that align with our intentions.

Habits are also informed by intentions. So, if we find ourselves continually getting tripped up and slipping back into “bad habits,” we may benefit from taking some time to explore the intentions that keep bringing us back to unskillful choices. Perhaps a realignment of our intentions with a more heart-based quality can get us closer to the place we want to be.

If we are having a hard time distinguishing the source of our motivation, insight can be gained by physically monitoring how our choices feel in the body. The act of generosity provides a great example of how the same action can feel quite different based on the intention behind it. Consider for a moment how it feels to sincerely give to another person without any expectation of receiving something in return. Conversely, consider how it feels to give to someone when there is an expectation of reciprocation. Very different sensations, right? These bodily sensations provide useful information about the quality of our intentions.

Sometimes this type of inquiry will inform us our intentions are a mix of both wholesome and unwholesome qualities. When we recognize there is an internal conflict, we can consciously choose to refrain from actions that arise from detrimental qualities and align our actions with the intention of promoting well-being.

Intentions are the seeds informing every action we take. They are a moment-to-moment gauge of how close we are living to our values, and through consistent action, what we are weaving into the fabric of our lives. Anchoring into our intentions can help us stay committed to skillful action when challenging moments arise—which they inevitably will. And even in the moments when we notice our behavior has digressed, every recognition and realignment towards intentional action builds the muscle of living more fully aligned with our personal value system.

When we sow seeds of heart-based intentions, reaching goals begins to take a back seat to how we feel inside about what we are doing and why. Anchored in heart-based intentions we are more likely to take life as it comes from moment-to-moment because we are focused on building a strong foundation of authentic behavior that nurtures our life. And from this place, we are more inclined to experience a sense of fulfillment regardless of what our external circumstances may look like at the moment.