The surprising power of intention setting and how to unlock it
By Micah Yongo
Oct 23, 2023
Most people like the idea of setting intentions. You could even argue the allure of finish lines and ticked off to-dos has been embedded deep within our psyche for millennia. Our brains love the clarity of a tangible endpoint. It’s why we hate queues, waiting at bus stops, and late trains.
It’s also why we don’t usually do well with vaguely defined goals. We need to know, on some visceral limbic level, exactly when we’ll have accomplished an aim, gotten a thing done. After all nothing beats the delicious feeling of closure you get from striking through an item on your to-do list.
This is what makes intention setting, when done correctly, such a powerful aide to productivity.
Let’s take a look at why this practice is so effective, and explore a few smart intention setting techniques that can help to nix procrastination, trigger focus, and ensure you get things done, on time, when you most need to.
The magnetism of intentions
"Intentions are the bridge between our deepest desires and reality."
One of the most vital advantages of setting intentions is it allows us to connect with the meaning behind our tasks. When a craftsman sits down at his workbench, he doesn't merely aim to put pieces together; he visualizes the final masterpiece. This is because our brains respond to intention-driven actions more powerfully than to mere task completion.
Studies have shown that when our actions are intertwined with a sense of purpose, the levels of dopamine — the "feel good" neurotransmitter — surge higher. This not only rewards us with a sense of achievement but also reinforces our drive, making the path to our goal more satisfying and sustainable.
When it comes to your work, it’s when you’re able to clearly see why you are doing something that you’re most motivated to accomplish it.
For example, starting a project with the intention of learning can make failures seem less like setbacks and more like stepping stones. By aiming not just to finish a marathon but to prove one's resilience, every mile becomes a testament to one's grit.
This is what intention setting is all about. Whereas a task defines a specific action to be taken, an intention describes its aim.
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Here are a few quick tips on where to begin:
Use visualization to set intentions that matter
Walt Disney once said, "If you can dream it, you can do it."
Visualization isn't a whimsical daydream; it's a potent mental tool. Olympic athletes use it to "experience" their performance before the event. They 'see' the win, 'feel' the medal, and 'hear' the crowd. By visualizing the process and the outcome, you're training your brain to recognize what's necessary to achieve those goals. It's a preparatory phase, setting the groundwork for reality.
Write your intentions down
There's undeniable power in transcribing thoughts onto paper. Studies have shown that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them. This act transforms a fleeting thought into a tangible entity. And, when combined with specific details, this entity gains momentum, moving from the imagined to the achievable.
Aim for chunks, not mountains
By segmenting larger goals into smaller tasks, they become less daunting and more manageable. This tactic is frequently used in project management, termed as "chunking." Each chunk, or task, serves as a stepping stone, making the journey less overwhelming and the destination clearer.
How to craft and hone your intentions
- Begin with the end in mind: Visualize what you hope to achieve. Not just the tangible outcomes but the feelings and personal growth attached to them.
- Connect emotionally: Dive deep and identify why this goal is essential. What values does it uphold? What personal narrative does it further?
- Stay authentic: Ensure your intention aligns with your core beliefs. A mismatch can lead to dissatisfaction, even in the face of success.
- Revisit and refine: Intentions aren't set in stone. As you grow and evolve, allow your intentions to morph and mature with you.
The secret to implementation intention setting
Once you have properly defined the aims you’re working toward, it’s important to map out the path you’ll take to get there. Implementation intentions are a term used to describe a specific type of intention setting that is focused on precisely this—so that you can more easily target the incremental steps to a goal.
Think back to a time you set a goal. Maybe it was a New Year's resolution or a quarterly target at work. Now, ask yourself: How often did you envision the steps to reach that goal? The honest answer for most is, not often enough.
Goals are the 'what'—what we want to achieve. But implementation intentions? They're the 'how' — the steps, the daily commitments, the choices we make every moment. If goals are the mountains we aspire to climb, intentions are the gear, the map, and the grit that guide us upwards.
Studies have found that using implementation intentions can increase your chances of following through on a given task to 91% — more than double the typical rate of those who set out toward an aim without using this practice.
So, here are a few quick tips on how to start using implementation intentions.
Be specific: language is important when it comes to defining actions, so aim to include as much detail as possible when it comes to describing what you’re going to do. You’ll want to be clear when you’ve accomplished it.
Keep things small: your steps need to be actionable. Think practically and write down each incremental aspect of what needs to be done to make progress.
Make it immediate: focus on tasks that can be accomplished in the here and now. You want to anchor your attention to the next available step in the journey.
Your implementation intention should follow the structure below.
I'm going to aim to complete my research paper on ecological survey techniques this week.” ❌
“This week, I will work on [TASK] for [HOW LONG] on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”
“This week, I will work on my research paper for 45 minutes on Tuesday at 9am in the library.” ✅
Having enough clarity and specificity in how you structure your intentions is a big part of successfully completing them. Another big factor in making sure your intentions stick, is planning for the inevitable distractions you’ll encounter along the way.
How to navigate intention setting pitfalls
In this era of notifications, endless scrolling, and digital noise, often the real challenge isn't setting a goal. It's maintaining the intent and focus that's needed to fulfil it. And this is where the magic of intention setting shines.
Unlike the rigid framework of goals, intentions are adaptable. They become our inner GPS, recalibrating our path when life throws curveballs. But to make intentions work, it’s important to plan for the inevitable hiccups and distractions that often crop up along the way.
Having an if/then plan is a great way to do this.
How to use if/then plans to make your intentions stick
If/then plans are simply a way of anticipating challenges that may keep you from following through on a task, then writing down a plan for what to do when you encounter them.
A simple example might look like this:
“During the next week, I will run in Victoria Park at an even pace for 30 minutes on Thursday at 11am. But if it’s raining and less than 12°C outside, I’ll go to the gym to use a running machine instead.”
By building an if/then plan into your intention setting ritual you automate your response to stumbling blocks when they arise, so that they don’t derail you.
Set your intentions, but appreciate the journey
"It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."
In our fast-paced, results-driven world, taking time to properly set your intentions can often fall by the wayside. But by intertwining visualization, writing, and breaking tasks down, you’ll take deliberate actions to ensure your activities consistently contribute to your overall goals.
But as the literary giant Ernest Hemingway once mused, "It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end." Although Hemingway wasn't a productivity guru or a motivational speaker, but his words do remind us of a timeless truth — that while endpoints provide direction, it's the journey that enriches us.