Goals vs. Intentions

By Michelle May, M.D.

I’ve written at least a half dozen articles and one book chapter about successful goal setting. Moreover, my own life seemingly unfolded one goal at a time: medical school, medical practice, starting my company, writing my first book, and so on.

Not surprisingly, I dieted the same way.

Goals vs. IntentionsIt’s the journey, not just the destination

The trite but true saying, “It’s the journey, not just the destination,” summarizes the limitations of goals. Without having a guiding intention, a goal keeps you focused on doing with the expectation of some reward, acknowledgement, or happiness when you cross the finish line.

On the other hand, intention setting is the practice of living in alignment with your values now. Your focus is on being based on the internal state you wish to create. With your intention in mind, you have the flexibility to adapt to the ever-changing present moment. When inevitable obstacles and opportunities present themselves, your intention guides your attitude and actions based on your principles. Unlike hoping you’ll accomplish a goal that you’ll celebrate (or cross off) in the future, your beautiful life unfolds moment by moment.

The road to health is paved with good intentions

The connection to mindful eating is probably obvious but let’s explore this further.

When you set a goal like losing 20 pounds, lowering your blood pressure, or getting off your diabetes medication, your “success” is based on an external result that’s off in the future, and may or may not actually happen due to numerous factors beyond your control. In the meantime, temptations are everywhere so to stay on course, you muster your willpower and fixate on the future. If you do accomplish the goal, the satisfaction is often temporary and you new goal becomes “maintenance”—hardly inspiring. If your goal is not achieved despite your best effort, you feel discouraged, disappointed, or even ashamed. You are likely to “quit” your diet and/or exercise program, only to set another goal when you feel bad enough.

Instead, when your intention is to eat mindfully in order to feel good now, you make conscious decisions about when, what, how, and how much to eat by weighing all of your available options. Your awareness of your physical sensations, your thoughts, and your feelings provide continuous feedback about how close you are to your intention. When (not if) you overdo it, your body lets you know. Without judgment, you learn from your necessary mistakes and make continuous adjustments based on the intrinsic “reward” of feeling good now.

Finding the balance

Don’t get me wrong. Effective goal setting is a valuable skill that may help you take the necessary steps to achieve a desired result in the future. And there’s nothing wrong with that… unless it causes you to miss out on now.

As my experience with mindfulness evolves, I realize that achieving my goals is only a small part of creating a life I love. My intention to live fully and vibrantly makes that life a daily reality.

 

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