How Setting Intentions Can Help You Stay Focused on What's Really Important

One of the most powerful things you can do to nourish your soul is being super clear on what's actually important to you. But, you're juggling so many different priorities - yours, your family's, your friends', your colleagues' - that it's really easy to get off course. As you try to meet everyone else's needs, you can easily forget what's really important to you.

One way to react to this situation is to shrug and say, "Oh well, that's just how it goes." But I've found there's another option, one that's surprisingly simple and effective.

My own personal experience, and a wealth of research, has shown that you can actually shape the way your day goes by consciously choosing what you want the day to be about.

I'm not talking about prayer or wishful thinking or even positive thinking. I'm talking about taking a few moments to get clear on what's really important, before you launch into your day. Doing that allows you to start the day intentionally, rather than just falling into other people's agendas.

How You Do It

There are many ways to set intentions; my favorite (and the one I use in my own life and teach in my classes at WITHIN Meditation) is adapted from Caroline Webb's brilliant and fascinating book, How to Have A Good Day (more on that below). I answer four simple questions, each conveniently centered on a word starting with "A". You can answer these questions in your head, or on paper; at the very beginning of your day, or at any time during it when you need to get clear again on what's important to you. I've even run through them in the shower!

What's your aim for today? Take a step back and consider the main events you expect to happen. What's really important, overall or for the most significant event? This isn't about a to-do list; it's about asking yourself what really matters.

What's your attitude about today? When you consider your aim, what feelings come up? Are you excited? Nervous? Angry? Sad? Notice those feelings, and ask yourself if having that attitude will help you accomplish your aim. If it won't, now's the time to choose another attitude instead. (Note: this is not about repressing genuine feelings; it's about honoring them, and recognizing that you have the ability to choose to have a different attitude.)

What assumptions do you have about today? As you examine your attitude, you'll probably realize that it's tied to assumptions you've unconsciously made about the situations you expect to encounter. Challenge those assumptions! You may well be right, but you could also be wrong. Opening the door to the possibility that things could go differently or people could behave differently than you expect will affect how you go into the situation, and may even change the outcome.

What do you want to pay attention to today? Amazingly, you can change what you notice simply by choosing what you're looking for - and that will affect how you experience the day. What do you want to look for, to help you in your aim?

Just run through those questions before you launch into your day - or at any point during it - and you'll be setting clear intentions for what's coming next.

Why It Works

In How to Have A Good Day, Caroline Webb describes several different psychological studies that have been done that show two key aspects of how we process information:

  1. We literally filter out things that aren't important to us. Our brains are hardwired to skip over much of the information we encounter, whether that's people talking to us, sounds we hear, words we read, or things we see. Personally I'm quite grateful for this amazing ability to filter: it means that I don't have to process the overwhelming array of information that's hitting me at any given moment. But, the downside is, you filter automatically based on what your brain and your body are telling you at any given moment. That means that, if you're feeling hungry, you're going to be hyper focused on any and all food-related images, smells, and thoughts, at the expense of what might actually be more important or urgent.
  2. This filtering also blinds us to information that doesn't match what we're looking for. When you're focused on an agenda or are sure you know what a situation or a person is about, you see and hear only the evidence that supports your assumptions. This is called confirmation bias, and it's extraordinarily powerful. You and your colleague can sit in the exact same meeting, and have completely different experiences of it, based on the assumptions you each have going into it. If you're sure the meeting is going to go poorly, you're going to hear all of the criticisms and negative turns in the conversation, and none of the praise or positive turns. If your colleague is sure it's going to go well, they'll filter for all the positive elements of the conversation, and discount all the criticisms you heard.

Combine #1 and #2 and you can see how much your mindset influences your experience.

This is where setting intentions comes in: by deliberately, consciously choosing what's important - rather than having it happen automatically - you shape your experience.

Take This Example

I had a day this week when I would usually be at work, but needed to be home with my toddlers. Here's how I used the 4-question intention setting to start the day off right:

Aim: The most important thing to me was to be engaged with my kids, and not distracted by the work that wasn't getting done because I was with them.

Attitude: I felt frustrated and nervous about not being available for phone calls and emails that I knew would come in, some of which might be urgent. I realized that attitude was not going to help me be present for my kids, and it wasn't going to change the fact that I wasn't available to work. I chose instead to feel grateful for the time I got to spend with them - they're growing up fast! - and to be playful.

Assumptions: I realized I was assuming that people (clients and colleagues) would be upset, annoyed, or think less of me because I wasn't responding to their emails or calls that day. I was also assuming that I needed to be the best worker AND the best mom, and part of my frustration was that it was clearly impossible to be both at once. Instead, I could acknowledge that most of the people I was in touch with wouldn't even notice if I didn't reply to them until the next day, and that my standard of "the best" was way higher than what anyone else would expect of me.

Attention: To help myself counter those assumptions and feel grateful, I chose to look for the moments when my boys were having fun, being adorable, and (in their toddler way) inviting me to engage with them. Celebrating those moments would help me stay focused on the gift of being with them, vs the frustration of not being at work.

Setting these intentions didn't prevent me from having moments where I felt anxious about work, but it tipped the balance towards being present and engaged with my kids.

And it was definitely a lot more fun and fulfilling than spending the whole day grumpy about work that wasn't getting done!

Your Turn!

This week, try setting intentions for several days (whatever feels do-able - maybe every work day, or 3 out of 7 days). How is your experience of the day different when you start it with more clarity about what's really important?

I'd love to hear how it goes for you! Tell me in the comments below.