Do you struggle to set meaningful goals and complete them?
You are not alone. Throughout our professional development, we are taught to believe that the key to success, no matter the domain or timeframe, is to set specific goals, work until the goal is complete and then move on to the next goal.
We are told that if you struggle with completing your goals it is because you:
- Didn’t have the necessary discipline
- Were distracted and lazy
- Just didn’t have what it takes
This is nonsense because when it comes to creative and professional development setting goals does not work well.
The entire career goal, life goal, and yearly goal framework is not just ineffective for the creative work our development relies on, it is counterproductive.
It encourages guesswork, magical thinking about the future, as well as a fixation on irrelevant metrics that we often do not have control over. The more complex and farther out in time the goal is, the more counterproductive goal setting becomes.
After struggling with goal-setting frameworks for years, I’ve come to rely on a much more effective and healthy way to think of where I want to go and how to get there.
Instead of setting goals I design intentions.
What is the difference? Goals represent an imagined future end state, intentions represent a commitment to move in a purposeful direction.
Goals are the giant X on a treasure map, Intentions are a compass that allows you to explore that map.
Let’s go over why a metaphorical compass is much better way to approach your creative, intellectual, and professional development.
Goals encourage attachment to hypothetical outcomes, not present opportunities
When you set goals, you are imagining some future desirable outcome that your actions will take you to (the location of the treasure). According to the S.M.A.R.T. goal philosophy the more specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based the better.
This makes sense. The more clarity you have with where the X is on the map, as well as how to get there, the more likely you will be to achieve the objective of getting to the X.
The problem is that when it comes to your development, there is no clear path to the X on the map. In fact, there is no X on the map.
Any guess you might have about how things might be at some point in the future is hypothetical. Unfortunately, by setting specific goals within an unexplored map you are trying to turn a hypothetical into a fact without sufficient information or testing.
Focus and awareness of present circumstances and opportunities are replaced by a fixation on a hypothetical future.
Actions and resource allocation are focused on getting to a preconceived future state regardless of changes in circumstances, new learning, and unanticipated challenges. Progress is measured only within the context and in relation to that future hypothetical state of being.
Altering a goal, even in response to new information or new circumstances, is perceived as a failure of either planning or execution.
Goals encourage planning, intentions encourage action
When you design intentions, you are making a deliberate commitment to a direction of action, not a rigid future state of being.
You avoid attachment to outcome by acknowledging that you cannot possibly know with specificity where your actions will take you. Planning every possible metric between every step between now and some future state is impossible and therefore a waste of time. The farther out into the future the goal the more this is true.
With an intention, you focus instead on implementing the next action that you perceive to be a valuable manifestation of your commitment to an interest.
Interest + Commitment = Intention.
Start with an interest you have. It may be a curiosity about a domain, a question you want to be answered, a career you want to explore, or a skill set you want to develop. It might be more specific like an interest in writing an article on why intentions are better than goals.
You then set an intention by committing to action (usually in the form of a task or project) that you think will move you towards a stronger engagement with that interest.
This allows for exploration and experimentation of actions that can be tested through review and reflection. Your intention behaves like a compass instead of a planned list of finish lines that need to be crossed.
When an action is complete or even in progress you simply need to ask; is this action in line with and moving me towards my intention? If it is not, it is not a failure, it is new valuable information that can help you move to the next action you think will move you along your intention.
Do this consistently enough and you start to build a portfolio of knowledge, skills, creative artifacts, and bodies of work all of which were in alignment with your interests and core values.
You will look back as part of your reflection practice and realize that you are actually farther along than any hypothetical goal you might have set a week, month or year ago. Not only are you farther along but where you thought that X was on the treasure map was way off.
The only way the X could have been further off is if you were using someone else’s map.
Goals encourage external interference, Intentions encourage ownership
One of the largest detriments of goals is that they often encourage external interference. Life goals, educational goals, and career goals get set by authoritative external influences instead of the individuals whose goals they are.
It might be a parent telling you that you must become an engineer even though you are more interested in design.
It could be a teacher that dismisses your intense interest in visual art as “impractical” because it leads to being a “starving artist”.
It might be a culture that insists that you get good grades, take 75 AP courses, play specific sports, do an insane number of extracurricular activities, get accepted to a famous college, get a “respectable” job, have three kids before you turn thirty, buy a house and then repeat the cycle by forcing your goals onto your kids in that order.
A desired outcome is determined for you (be a student at a famous college, be a successful professional, be a parent of a child at a famous college, etc.) and a fragile, rigid, and often dated path to that outcome is tracked and evaluated using shame and guilt and condemnation as an enforcement mechanism.
The authority figure is essentially giving you a dated map of a totally different world from the one you inhabit and saying “follow this! It worked for me.” Or even worse “Follow this! Or else.”
The power of intentions is that they are all yours, not your friend’s, not your teacher’s, not your parent’s.
They are tightly connected to your core values which determine your interests which in turn determine your intentions. The links of this chain can be influenced by circumstance and experience, but they are always yours.
Let’s lean into this ownership of intention.
In the next article, I’ll give you some great ways to start implementing this process so you can start designing your intentions as a practice that will help you develop creatively and professionally.
Till then I hope you will take the time to join me and your fellow creatives by subscribing to the newsletter below for new content, resource suggestions, and community announcements.