Every year around this time, some of us approach the turning of the calendar the way Charlie Brown approaches the football in the classic Peanuts cartoon. Even though Lucy has previously fooled him and whisked the ball away at the last moment every time, he is hopeful that this time will be different. Similarly, in spite of the very mixed track record of New Year’s resolutions, we make them again and again, somehow hoping this time will be different.
Research on the efficacy of New Year’s resolutions is imprecise. One survey finds that four out of five people will eventually break their resolutions. Another study reports a higher success rate. Both agree that about a third of resolutions do not make it past the first month.
This year, let us not fool ourselves again. Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. New Year’s resolutions are a flawed way to reach an admirable goal—becoming the best version of ourselves.
There are a couple of reasons why resolutions set us up for disappointment. First, we underestimate how long it takes to kick a bad habit or adopt a good one. Popular wisdom says it takes 21 days. However, studies indicate that on average it takes approximately 66 days before a new habit becomes automatic.
Second, people tend to make long lists of big habits they want to change—like losing weight, saving more money, doubling revenue, and quitting smoking or drinking. Each of these goals is a heavy lift requiring considerable effort. We overwhelm ourselves by focusing on substantial changes down the road rather than on small changes in the here and now.
Begin with intention instead
I encourage clients to put less pressure on themselves by developing the habit of making regular daily, weekly, and monthly intentions instead of making a big ordeal about laborious resolutions. In the same way an attitude of gratitude should be a year-round practice rather than consigned to one day, setting intentions to better ourselves will be more sustainable if we spread the effort throughout the year.
The distinction between goals and intentions is more than a semantic one. An intention is more forgiving, without the built-in succeed-or-fail dynamic that seems to come with New Year’s resolutions. The idea of intention honors effort and process, and not just results.
For example, we might adopt a long-term goal of reducing stress by practicing meditation. That is a worthy and not always easily attainable goal. Yet on a daily basis, our intention may be to sit for two minutes and pay attention to our breath. I tell my clients there is no such thing as a bad meditation session. There is no failure. As long as you choose to sit quietly—and, depending on the type of meditation, focus on your intention, breath, or mantra—it is a success.
Start with the here and now
While goals are about the future, intention is rooted in the present. The future is full of unknowns and thus can give rise to anxiety. The present keeps us grounded.
Setting an intention starts with mindfulness. I work with clients on a simple yet powerful three-step method called PBC:
- Pause. Stop what you are doing. Take a brief time-out and check-in with yourself.
- Breathe. Take a conscious breath to become present and grounded. Reset.
- Choose. Make a mindful choice about an intention for that day, week, or month.
- How do I want to feel? (this could be today, this week, or for something specific i.e, a project, event, or trip).
- What do I want? Alternatively, what do I want to achieve?
- How will I know when I have this? What do I need to feel, think, see, or hear?
- What resources do I have available and what do I need to achieve this?
- What steps do I need to take?
Goals with intention (GWI)
Goals motivate us, provide structure, and lend meaning and purpose to our life. However, when paired with intention, GWI (goals with intention) we get the best of both worlds. GWI’s propel us toward our future self while keeping us firmly planted in our present self. This way life does not pass us by while we are planning for the future.
We tend to stick with long-term goals, one study finds, when future rewards are balanced with immediate rewards. Those rewards tend to be more experiential in nature. They are about process rather than results. For example, a long-term goal might be to obtain additional credentials for our area of expertise. An immediate reward would be the pleasure and excitement of learning something new.
Focusing on the process and on small daily intentions helps us avoid getting overwhelmed by ambitious long-term goals. We know our GWI’s are there, but we organize our days around gradual, incremental steps and learn to enjoy the journey without getting too anxious about the destination
Let heart and mind work together
Thinking about GWI is not just about establishing a balance between future and present, but also between heart and mind as well.
Since goals exist in the future and are on some level an abstraction, they are more a product of the mind. Intentions, rooted in our immediate experience of the present, tend to come from the heart. Why should we limit ourselves to mind-based goals or heart-centered intentions when we can have both? If we develop a regular practice of setting mindful daily intentions, we can encourage our heart and mind to work in concert with one another as we move toward truly fulfilling our highest potential.
Staying on track
Focusing on gradual, incremental steps works—but only if we stay on course. For most of us, doing so alone is unsustainable. We can set ourselves up for success by seeking out the support and accountability that can help us avoid faltering along the way.
Sharing a GWI with a colleague or confidante can be helpful. When you declare your goal to someone, you ensure they will be there to inquire about your progress, and to celebrate your wins along the way. You can further formalize that informal accountability by joining a group whose members can help keep one another on track.
Hiring a coach is another way to inject structure, support, and accountability into your daily routine. Whatever strategy you adopt, set yourself up for success by steering clear of the trappings of the standard New Year’s resolutions. Stay grounded in the present, and in the process, by balancing long-term goals with daily intentions.
We are all drawn by the promise of a fresh start the new year seems to offer. Goals with intention is a more holistic and sustainable way to embrace that opportunity.
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Published on Forbes on Dec. 11, 2018.