The Science of Intention Setting, and One Powerful Trick to Help You Achieve your Goals

May 18 · 5 min read

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Intentions are a wonderful thing, but they also pave the road to hell, as the old saying goes.

You hear a lot about setting intentions these days, specifically from folks like mindfulness gurus and law of attraction coaches. Instead of just simply setting a goal, you set your intentions, they say. You can set long-term intentions, something on par with New Years Resolutions, or you can set your intentions for the day or the week. Often at the beginning of a yoga class, the instructor will ask you to set your intentions for the class, whether that be fitness-related or just to bring your focus to the present moment.

Let me ask you, how often do you remember what those intentions are each time that you set them?

Sometimes I do, but other times, such as at the beginning of a yoga class when I try to come up with some last-minute intention when the instructor tells me to do so, I’ve forgotten it after the hour. My mind wanders off as the human brain does sometimes, and with it wanders those well-meaning intentions. Often, I don’t fulfill those last-minute intentions.


Goals vs. Intentions'

There is a difference between goals and intentions.

Goals are set for the future. They are external accomplishments that can be mapped out with a definitive definition as to when they are accomplished. They are specific and measurable. Goals help us with the processes of things like work, school, and fitness; as we think about that end-point, we can work through the day-to-day and week-to-week processes that we must face in order to achieve our goals.

Intentions are lived each day regardless of whether or not you are achieving your goals; they are about your relationship with yourself and others. Intentions are simply about the present moment.

Goals are the results, and intentions are the process, whether you are at the beginning, middle, or end.


Is one better?

Is there really a specific answer to this question?

It all comes down to what you are trying to achieve.

If your current phase in life is an accomplishment, then goals will help you meet your desires.

A good coach tells you to set SMART goals; that is, goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. This concept has been around for decades, first being used in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran.

Look ahead six months, a year, five years. Where do you see yourself? What do you want to accomplish? Write that down, then work backward and figure out what you have to do in order to get there, keeping the above acronym in mind. Thinking about SMART goals can help you manage your time better, clarify your ideas, and focus your efforts.

Once again, goals are set for the future. Once you have accomplished one goal, it’s time to set another. It keeps propelling you forward, like hopping from rock to rock to cross a river, then exploring onwards on the new land you find once you have crossed.

Intentions are the present moment. Intentions don’t look to the future or dwell in the past. They bring your awareness to the here and now. Who do you want to be in this moment? What do you want to accomplish in the very breath you are taking at this instant?


One solid trick to combine your intentions with your goals to help you succeed…

There are certain aspects of goal setting that will set you up for success and not leave your goals withering like so many New Years’ resolutions year after year.

Firstly, don’t fall for the, “it takes 14 days to form a habit,” sort of rhetoric. That’s a pretty solid myth. So is “don’t quit once you start,” and “practice makes perfect.”

Research shows that it takes anywhere from 18 to 264 days to form a new habit and that quitting goal pursuit is a better coping strategy for your well-being if you happen to have set for yourself an unattainable goal.

The amount of time it takes to form a new habit depends on so many factors, from the complexity of your goal, your personality, and your past behaviors. Deciding you’re no longer going to hit the snooze button in the mornings is a less complex habit to change than quitting a nicotine addiction, and therefore may take different lengths of time and require a varying level of effort.

Research also shows that people are more likely to succeed in their goals if they are challenging, specific goals as opposed to challenging but vague goals, as well as learning goals over performance goals. For example, if you’re just getting into running, you may be more successful in setting a goal that you want to complete a marathon instead of setting a goal of finishing a marathon in a specific amount of time (1).

Instead of dwelling on doing the same thing for a set amount of days, or practicing something over and over until your psychological well-being is suffering, try setting implementation intentions.


What are implementation intentions?

As we discussed, intentions are who you are in the present moment. A goal is a future accomplishment that takes a process to achieve.

Let’s break it down.

If your goal is to exercise more, instead of telling yourself that you will simply exercise more, tell yourself exactly when, how, how often, and by what means you will exercise. For example, “I will go to yoga class once a week after work, and run twice a week before work.”

You can also build for yourself if/then scenarios, so perhaps you have one week where you were knocked off your routine schedule, you have a game plan as to how you will continue afterward.

For example, “If I get sick and can’t go to the gym, then I will give myself time to heal, rest, and I will resume my routine once I am symptom-free and my energy has returned.”

A study done in Great Britain looked at a group of 248 individuals with the common goal of exercising more.

One group was the control, and they were asked to just track how frequently they exercised. The second group was the motivation group, so they were asked to track how frequently they exercised as well as read and studied material on the benefits of exercise and why it would be good for them. The researchers even gave them a presentation on the benefits of exercise for heart health and longevity. The third group was the implementation intentions group, and they were asked to put together a specific plan as to exactly when and how they would exercise like I discussed before.

The results showed that in the first two groups, 35-38% of people exercised at least once per week with no significant difference. However, in the group that set implementation intentions, 91% of participants exercised at least once per week, a huge leap from the motivation group and control group! When participants actually mapped out when and how they would exercise, they were a lot more likely to follow through.


Next time you have a goal you’d like to reach…

  • Instead of telling yourself, in X days I will have accomplished this, map out specifically how you will get there, what actions you need to take, and what you will do day-to-day or week-to-week to accomplish that goal.
  • Sometimes, life happens and external things get in the way of even our best intentions. Plan that out, write it down, and decide how you will deal with obstacles that may unexpectedly occupy your course.
  • Be patient with yourself. It doesn’t take exactly 14 or 20 days to form a habit, and if you’re going for something, take into consideration the complexity of your goal, your own personality, and what is realistic for you.
  • Challenge yourself, but give yourself challenging, specific goals. Don’t shoot for the moon without a clear, detailed map to get there.


(1) Gollwitzer, Peter M. “Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans.” The American Psychologist, vol. 54, no. 7, pp. 493–503.

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