How Do We Grow? – Part 3: Best Intentions

In previous posts in this series (Part 1 and Part 2), we talked about how meaningful insights start the process of personal growth. If our insights truly resonate with us on a personal level, then there is a natural progression to the next stage of change, which is when we form our intentions. In other words, when we have a big “ah ha!” moment in life, it usually follows that we say to ourselves, “Now what am I going to do about this?”

As we approach the end of the year and spend some time in reflection, some of us may consider making some “resolutions” for the new year. The problem is that in most cases, we don’t seem be resolute enough to make them happen. Why is this the case? We all seem to have good intentions and the types of goals we come up with seem worthwhile enough. However, I would make the argument that this is exactly the problem. We have good intentions, but what is needed is our best intentions. We may have worthwhile goals, but we should be choosing our best goals. And as I’ll explain, our best intentions and goals are meant to work together to help us get to where we need to go.

The Difference Is Determination – I mentioned previously that I see intention as a stage of choosing, but in order to really move forward we need these choices to be sustained. Best intentions are not choices made on New Years Day, but they are decisions that we make over and over again. It is the level of determination that we have that will keep us in the gym through December when most people have stopped showing up by February. I would define determination as a persistent choice. It is our determination that makes us try again when the outcome of plan A didn’t quite work out as we expected. It is our determination that pushes us through the times when the process is not immediately rewarding. Easier said than done? Well in some ways being determined is easier than some of the other stages of change because it is the one stage that is entirely within our control. Insights require experience and exposure to new knowledge, which is not necessarily something that we have a say over as we go about living our lives. Oftentimes, those experiences have to come to us. In the stages that follow intention, when we practice and integrate new behaviors, they may require outside help and support for us to be successful. Intention on the other hand, because it is based on our choice, is dictated by our own effort, focus, and dedication. Even so, there are also ways in which our determination can be supported and sustained by choosing the best possible goals.

Goals, Not Strategies – The next principle is that we don’t want to confuse goals with strategies. For example, some people might say that they want to exercise more regularly as a goal. To me, exercising regularly is actually a strategy to meet a goal. The goal here would be to become physically healthy, to feel good on a consistent basis, to invest more into your own wellbeing. Behind our goals is a recognition of our universal human needs and our desire to meet them, whereas strategies are the steps that get us closer. Meeting needs creates positive feelings, but completing a strategy isn’t inherently fulfilling. So the problem when we confuse the two is that strategies, because of the lack of immediate fulfillment, don’t create the type of internal motivation to keep us energized and focused through the inevitable difficulties of trying to do something new. However, if we can see that exercising is an important step in meeting our needs, we actually do feel an indirect satisfaction from the process, and can greater appreciate the incremental rewards as we get closer to our goals. It’s this internal feedback that provides the substance behind our determination, which I mentioned above as the difference between getting stuck versus following through.

Choosing What’s Best – Lastly, strategies that are confused as goals are often not ambitious enough. What’s the cost of low ambition? We might actually achieve them too easily and that makes them less than gratifying, not particularly meaningful, and since it was easy, we are less likely to keep up with these changes because we think we can always do it again later if we need to. What’s the benefit of high ambition? Future goals that are truly meaningful and personally relevant give context to why we are trying so hard in the present to work through those periods of resistance. Each step gives us opportunity to feel the rewards of our effort. If we’ve chosen healthy goals, then the incremental improvements can already start to make us feel better about ourselves today.

So what does this look like? Instead of choosing to eat better or to exercise more regularly, the best goal would be to become healthy. In order to be healthy, strategies would be to permanently change the way you eat, make physical activity a normal part of your life, along with finding a better work-life balance, spending more time with friends and family, and developing your self-competency in new areas. Instead quitting smoking, the best goal would be to make your long term health a priority, which would require stopping unhealthy habits and replacing them with sustainable behaviors that promote wellbeing and longevity. Instead of staying sober one day at a time, choose to grow past unhealthy coping strategies permanently, towards greater self-awareness, maturity and meaningfulness in life.

Choosing the best possible goals helps give context to the intentions we have in the present. It can give us the type of determination that sustains us through the inevitable challenges, disappointments, and surprises that come with doing something new. Healthy goals are inherently gratifying even as we take the steps to get there, which can feed our motivation to keep on moving forward.

If you are considering making some New Year’s resolutions, can I suggest an alternative? How about coming up with your best possible goals, not just for this year but for the life you want to have. Then consider a few immediate strategies to help take some first steps towards these goals for the new year. To help you get started, reflect on these questions to guide you towards your absolutely best intentions:

What are my big needs in life, and what should I aim for to meet those needs?

Am I sure that my goals are actually goals and not just strategies?

Is there a better, healthier version of my goal?

What would the most ambitious version of this goal look like? How would I feel about myself and my life if I was able to achieve this best version of my goal? Why not aim for that?

What help do I need and how can I get that support? Am I willing to get the help I need to make this happen?

Warm wishes for a happy holiday season and the beginning of the best year of your life. See…that’s ambitious.

How Do We Grow? – Part 4: Finishing What We Started

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