Working with Intentionality

Working with Intentionality

Working with Intentionality

The way we approach our work (and life), the attitude we take, and the behaviors we express while working determine how we feel about our work. To consciously choose our approach and attitude towards work is working with intentionality.

For the last couple years, I have been using intentions more and more to prime my state of being. But I don’t always remember to intentionally and consciously approach my work. A good example is when I sit down to write. There are plenty of times when writing feels difficult and forced. I struggle to express myself and my writing lacks clarity and cohesion. Usually, on these days, my writing sessions end in disappointment. 

But, when I do remember start each writing session with an intention in mind, how I feel in the writing process is much more enjoyable. What’s more is that the quality of work improves.

For example, when I wrote the last series of posts on karma yoga, I had two major motivations. First, I wanted to expand upon my own learning and better digest and integrate what I had already been studying. Second, I set out to write valuable content that would positively impact readers and their workplaces. These motivations helped to create particular intentions each time I write like the following: I write to be both the student and the teacher, to both learn and share whatever wisdom and knowledge I can.

Here are some other recent overarching intentions I’ve written down over the last several weeks.

  • I enjoy all the work I do. I find peace and contentment in each moment.
  • I am engaged in life long learning and the process of self realization.
  • I listen kindly and caringly to others with true interest in their story.

If you can get into the habit and mindset of setting intentions, you will find that work happens with much less effort. You will probably also find the outcomes to be more favorable and that the process that generates those outcomes is in itself enjoyable. 

In this post I’m going to share with you the difference between intentions and goals, how to set intentions, and why you want to pair intentions with goals. Know that like most behavior or mindset changes, the shift happens gradually over a long period of time. Also, when we learn something new, we need repetition. Repetition not only ingrains patterns, but when we revisit topics such as this one, it allows us to pick up on nuances and deepen our understanding. If this is something you feel drawn to, make a point to come back to it at regular intervals. Bonus points if you put reminders on your calendar!

Goals without Intentions

Most of us are goal driven. We’ve been educated with goals and milestones as markers of progress and success. Why is that? Firstly, they motivate. When we set a goal, we become excited by the thought of fulfilling that goal, and then are doubly motivated by our own reward systems when we achieve it. Deadline driven goals also create crunch time when we set all excuses aside and become highly focused and productive.

Setting goals further allows us to quantitatively measure actual outcomes against expected outcomes. Therefore, we can make improvements and readjust to better meet our goals next time. Goals are useful tools, but are often missing something substantial. 

Imagine you are a salesperson and your goal is to sell 100 widgets this month. At the end of the month, you are frantically trying to close sales to meet your 100 widget quota. Your level of anxiety rises as you feel the time pressure, financial pressure, and social pressure of meeting your goal. In the last few weeks you work extra hours, spend regrettably less time with your kids, and find yourself growing irritable and short with prospects. Fortunately, you do meet your goal just shy of the end of the month. You feel relieved and take the next couple days to catch your breath and recover. And even better, you get a nice cash bonus as a result. Next month the goal is 105 widgets!

What meaning did that goal have? Was the journey there enjoyable? Did fulfilling the goal only leave emptiness and more anxiety in its place?

While this is a contrived example, it’s relatable even for non sales people. Many times we sacrifice something valuable to meet our goals. Perhaps that’s our physical and mental health in the form of poor diet or not enough sleep. Or we give up valuable time with family and friends to work extra hours and meet our deadlines. Most importantly, we too often ignore how we feel while striving for our goals.

Achieving goals has long been coupled with the idea of delayed gratification, and for good reason. But, if you’re like me, you may have misinterpreted delayed gratification to mean “I should feel bad now so I can feel even better later.” This interpretation is simply wrong.

Preventing ourselves from giving into immediate and instinctive rewards is not the same as making ourselves feel bad. Moreover, skipping tempting, immediate rewards often saves us from destructive behavior or at least from feeling worse. For example, when I would snack on junk food at work instead of allowing myself to be hungry, my performance and mood would decrease dramatically shortly after. I would have been better off hungry!

The real significance of delaying gratification is that we engage a higher level of consciousness (and our prefrontal cortex) to make decisions that more wholesomely serve and uplift us as human beings. Instead of eating that cookie, I can make better decisions that stem from the intention that “I enjoy feeling healthy and caring for myself”. Instead of feeling upset that I am hungry or letting it distract my work, my intention leads me to feel a sense of joy that I am caring for myself. What might be even better is to take a break to find or make a healthy snack!

I want to make one last point about how goal setting on its own can be detrimental. When setting goals, there is always the case that we fail to reach them. If we’ve invested and sacrificed a lot of ourselves but fail to get the outcome we wanted, we tend to feel low-spirited and even depressed. After all, what was all that sacrifice for?

It’s easy to become attached to the outcome of our goals. But to let our emotions and sense of self-worth depend on outcomes is not wise. Outcomes are always probable and never guaranteed. Why let our contentedness and peacefulness rest on a probability? By the way, this is why the fourth step of karma yoga is to remain unattached.

Before we move on, here are some helpful questions that will give you insight into goals you have set. Pick one goal and work your way through. I challenge you to write down or discuss your answers with others.

  • Why have you chosen this goal?
  • How will you feel having achieved this goal?
  • How will you feel having missed this goal?
  • What will you sacrifice for this goal?
  • How do you want to feel while working to meet your goal?

This last question takes us deep into the discussion of intentions.

A Quick Comparison: Intentions vs. Goals

Where goals are quantitative and time sensitive, intentions are qualitative and open ended. Where goals are future-facing and achievement oriented, intentions are experienced presently and are detached from outcomes. Goals are externally focused on objects and measurements while intentions speak to an inner focus of how we feel and think.

Future FacingPresent Tense
Externally FocusedInternally Focused
Project Now into the FuturePull the Future into the Present

How to Set Intentions

Intentions can sometimes be thought of as one’s reason or purpose behind an action. Typically though, these intentions are viewed in hindsight which means we infer–and perhaps make up–reasons that fit our past actions. These kinds of intentions are unconscious and not what we are after.

Additionally, to accurately understand the reason we’ve taken a particular action requires quite a bit of psychological work and introspection. To get to the bedrock of reason, we have to uncover our belief and value systems that generates emotions (i.e. motive forces). This is a whole series of blog posts on its own!

Getting in touch with your reason, motivation, or purpose for doing something is very powerful. I recommend doing this whenever you can.

But when we talk about intentions in yoga, we are really talking about consciously setting and embodying certain qualities about ourselves in relation to taking a particular action or series of actions. You might ask yourself, “How do I want to feel while performing this action?” or “What state of mind or attitude will best serve me as I go about my day?”

You must have heard, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. For me, it brings to mind two facts. The first is that solely setting intentions is not enough. We also need to focus on the consequences of our actions and set goals! More on this later. The second point is that there are particular ways for us to set intentions that work better than others. 

Here are the steps I use to set my own intentions:

  1. Pause and create space. A short breathing practice can help calm things down and let you tap into your intuition.
  2. Ask yourself what attitude(s) or state of mind will best serve you. Usually we know, or at least can feel out what things we need to do for ourselves. You may be surprised at what answers your unconscious mind quickly generates.
  3. Start with “I” and follow it by a present tense verb. Your stated intention will start with something like “I have…”, “I feel…”, “I am…”, “I enjoy…”, or “I embody…”
  4. Keep it positive. Avoid negative descriptors. For example, instead of “I am not anxious” say “I am at peace”.
  5. Simplify your intention and ask why or how this serves you. If your intention is lengthy or unwieldy try to get more clarity about what you need by asking “why?”.
  6. Let your final intention be inspired by a particular virtue or set of virtues. Such virtues might be kindness, peacefulness, patience, compassion, discipline, temperance, acceptance, etc.
  7. Add some descriptors if needed. If your intention feels flat, describe how that virtue would be embodied. Describe your feelings, your body language, your interaction with others, etc.
  8. Consciously set your intention and let your unconscious mind work. To constantly keep our intention in mind while working is unreasonable and probably counterproductive. Our powerful unconscious mind and body will carry our intention forward.

Warning: You want to aim for virtuous intentions and be aware that intentions that are focused on the ego, are attached to an outcome, or based out of fear will not work well. Also, we need to actively set our own intentions and not let them be a result of someone else’s judgement or instruction. Examples of misplaced intentions include practicing yoga to: look good (ego), to be more flexible and touch my toes (goal oriented attachment), or because my doctor said I should for my health (passive motivation based in fear). Improper intentions prevent us from performing the right actions that best serve us. Passive ones also prevent us from learning about ourselves.

Intentions can be set at any time and encompass any period of time. You may set your intention for one particular task that lasts a few minutes, one week, or perhaps persists throughout a whole year. Much like setting a goal, intentions work best when we can check back in with them with frequency. Additionally, just like goals, intentions are meant to be consciously set but then relinquished to the greater power of the unconscious mind and body.

Let’s work with an easy example of a college student who we’ll call Alex. Fortunately, Alex is genuinely interested in his studies and cares to do well in school. He wants to set an intention for each of his study sessions, and especially before taking the exam.

Before Alex starts his studies, he takes 3-5 minutes to set an intention. First he physically sets up his study space so he feels relaxed but ready to learn. Then he decompresses and clears his mind with a few deep breaths. When sitting down to work, he asks himself, “What attitude will best serve me while I study?” After a moment of stillness a few thoughts bubbles up. Alex thinks that what he really needs is patience, clarity of mind, and focus to work through the breadth and depth of study material. He says to himself, “I am patient and focused. My mind remains clear throughout my studies.” This is a good intention. To further create or amplify that state of mind, he can describe what it feels like to be patient, focused, and clear minded. For example: “My breath remains even and constant, I am relaxed yet feel alert. My thoughts stay on topic and if I feel them flit away, I can quickly reign them in.” Then Alex goes about his work and lets his unconscious mind carry his intention forward. He can always pause and remind himself when he begins to feel stressed or frustrated.

When it comes to taking his exam, knowing that he has studied well, Alex will be able to set an intention of acceptance and non-attachment to the outcome. These ideas can significantly reduce performance anxiety. He might say, “I am prepared and ready to face whatever challenge the exam brings. No matter the outcome, I am able to learn and grow as a result of this experience”.

The case of the student is particularly easy for me to write about and is a relatable example for most people. Below is a short exercise that will help you create more personalized intentions.

Set aside 5 minutes before your next task:

Sit comfortably and upright, most likely at the edge of your seat. Slow and deepen your breath (you might aim for 3-5 breaths per minute). Begin to envision your future self performing the upcoming action or period of work. How would you like to feel throughout the process? Ask yourself (perhaps aloud) what virtue(s) will serve me most in this moment? Then take a moment to picture yourself embodying those virtues. How are you interacting with others? What emotions do you feel? What emotions do those around you feel? Now simply state in the present tense what you have embodied. Then, let this intention go. Now you are ready to work with intentionality.

Pairing Intentions with Goals

In western philosophy there is often discussion of whether “the ends justify the means” or if “the means justify the ends”. The first phrase asks if we can ignore all the actions we’ve taken to reach an end if the end is ultimately positive? If I reach my goal, does how I get there matter?

The second phrase asks, does the outcome matter if we followed the rules and intended to do good? If I had good intentions the whole time and took the right action, does it matter that I reached my goal?

Yoga philosophy, being unifying, would dispute both statements and say that the ends and means justify each other. There is no either-or, nor a choice to make. The means and ends are both important. Let me elaborate on how setting intentions and setting goals together is a synergistic process.

Setting the right intentions help us fulfill our goals while feeling good in the process. Setting the right goals cue us to call upon the required virtues that we express in our intentions. As we become more effective and productive, we find that the fruits of our efforts are wholesome because they have well founded intentions. We also recognize that the results are just as important as the resulting process we experience. So we wind up feeling uplifted and inspired more and more often.

Note: Don’t confuse the importance of results with being attached to an outcome. We should aim high, but not be emotionally swayed for missing or hitting the mark. Staying non-attached means we can easily return to improving the process and be more accurate in the future.

Next time you are writing out your goals, see if you can pair an intention with each goal or as an overarching theme to the set of goals. It does help to understand why we want certain goals. To get clarity on the “why” usually requires repetition as we peel back the layers and the stories we tell ourselves. I encourage you to talk with friends and family, write and journal ideas, or somehow express your thoughts in an external medium (i.e. get them out of your head). Eventually, you may just wind up with an explanation that contains a virtuous sentiment. Use that sentiment in your intention as you work.

But an even better approach is to do the following:

Next time you are thinking about how you want to feel, what attitude you want to have, or your quality of experience, consider what goals you can set that will bring you closer to that inner quality. These goals do not have to be different from life goals that you may classically list as stepping stones to success. In fact, proceeding in this manner will give you a whole different perspective and reason for setting success goals.

Dialogue, Listening & Learning

As I mentioned in the early paragraphs of this post, one of the reasons I write is to better understand and integrate my own studies. What helps even more is if others engage with me and provide feedback in the form of dialogue and questions. Feel free to email me or leave a comment below.

Recently, I’ve been pushing myself and others to create more meaningful dialogue wherever they can, and especially at work. We can learn from each other whether we are playing the role of student or teacher. But to do this requires we really listen to others. My next post will be about creating dialogue and listening to others while at work.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

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