How Setting Intentions Can Help Us to Unlock Personal Growth
We’ve all been there. We set a new year’s resolution just to break it in a matter of days and then curse ourselves for lacking the self-discipline to commit to making a change. Falling off the bandwagon can be difficult to accept. It often leads us to abandon the pursuit of our goals altogether. In fact, research suggests that 80 percent of new year’s resolutions fail by February.
This is a widely referenced statistic and with good reason — our rigid approach to goal setting and personal growth is not serving us. We all want to meet the expectations that we set for ourselves, but an unwavering 12-month commitment to a decision made in January is impractical. The same research suggests that 35 percent of us are setting unrealistic resolutions.
How, then, can we approach our new year’s resolutions with a pinch of pragmatism?
Ironically, as I embarked on one of my new year’s resolutions, a daily meditation practice, I came across a wonderful quote from Tamara Levitt, a mindfulness instructor, and head of content at meditation app, Calm, that encouraged me to question my own approach to goal setting:
“For many of us, there is a sense that a resolution is all or nothing. Intentions however have much more compassionate energy because they don’t tie us to an outcome. They simply ask that we bring mindfulness to our actions and make efforts to change.” — Tamara Levitt
In order to have the best chance of making meaningful changes in our lives, we need the right strategy. Setting intentions will help to break the cycle of defeat often associated with new year’s resolutions and enable a kinder and more mindful approach to goal setting.
Use Self-Compassion to Set Intentions
At the start of a new year, we often focus on what is wrong in our lives and the actions we need to take to fix our careers, our bodies, our mental health, and our habits. However, research indicates that setting a goal based on self-criticism is counterproductive. One research study suggests that women with high levels of self-compassion are more motivated to exercise and their exercise goals are more likely to be related to health as opposed to ego. Dr. Laurie Santos discussed the downfall of our ruthless approach to new year’s goal setting on a recent episode of her podcast, The Happiness Lab, insisting:
“Strict diets, brutal exercise plans, and going cold turkey on the personal habits you want to shed — these strategies just don’t work.” — Laurie Santos
These types of strategies are founded on negative emotions including guilt, shame, and unworthiness, and are designed to make us suffer. When we use self-compassion to set intentions, rather than resolutions, we alleviate our suffering and replace it with kindness leading to a more supportive internal dialogue. Setting our intentions from a place of self-compassion provides a solid foundation for personal growth in the year ahead.
Give Yourself Permission to Fail
Setting intentions rather than resolutions has another key advantage — it gives us permission to fail. It’s human nature to fail so resolutions, by their very nature, do not set us up for success. Intentions enable us to respond to the ebb and flow of life, rather than establishing strict rules and boundaries that we must adhere to.
When we fail, our self-esteem is impacted and we are more likely to quit to protect ourselves from ridicule and judgment, but as Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor of educational psychology, points out, we are more likely to persevere when we practice self-compassion:
“People are much more motivated to try again, they try harder, they persist longer, they are more likely to pick themselves up after a failure and try again, they have more grit, and determination.” — Kristin Neff
In fact, one team of researchers suggest that failure is actually an essential prerequisite to success. Only when we practice self-compassion are we able to learn from our mistakes, dust ourselves off and try again. This enables us to progress gradually towards our goals without punishing ourselves for not meeting the unrealistic expectations that we set for ourselves.
Stop The All-or-Nothing Approach
Once we accept that we will fail, we also relinquish a negative all-or-nothing thought pattern associated with a new year’s resolution. Instead, we find the middle ground between success and failure and acknowledge the progress we have made towards achieving a goal or a desired behavior. Research suggests there is power in small steps and wins to maintain motivation and strive for even bigger goals.
“Track your small wins to motivate big accomplishments.” — Teresa Amabile
All-or-nothing thinking leads us to believe that anything less than perfect is a failure, and as we know, none of us are perfect. Intentions, however, don’t focus on outcomes, instead, they guide our actions and efforts towards gradual and meaningful change.
A More Mindful Year Ahead
As we enter the new year, we should take stock of how we want to live our lives and set intentions to help us move towards our vision through mindful actions and efforts. It’s also important to remember that there are no rules about when to set new intentions. If we feel stuck mid-year, start over and mindfully establish a new intention with kindness and compassion.
As Dr. Laurie Santos points out, the key to moving our lives forward this new year is actually quite straightforward:
“The real secret to fulfilling our new year’s goals is to simply be nicer to ourselves.” — Laurie Santos
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