We have to-do lists (take Benji to the vet; bring the car in for an oil change; complete the PowerPoint presentation). We have goals (run in a Turkey Trot; turn the garage into a workshop; get promoted in the next six months). We may even have a bucket list (deliver a TED Talk; visit every continent on the globe; earn a pilot’s license).
But what’s missing for many of us, and may lead to a feeling that our days are being spent in a slapdash way, is intention: a constellation of purpose and values that gives direction and meaning to actions large and small.
“I think of intention as the inner compass that sets us on our journey,” says Hugh Byrne, Ph.D., co-founder of the Mindfulness Training Institute of Washington, D.C., and author of The Here-and-Now Habit. “Without clear intentions, we drift, acting out old habits and patterns, like flotsam swept by the water.”
Intentions help us channel our energy into what matters most to us, adds Tina Chadda, a Toronto psychiatrist and creator of the Akasha meditation app, which offers mini tutorials on subjects like “the mindfulness of mistakes” and “maintaining flow.”
“More loosely, you could say intention is how we address the question, ‘What the heck are we doing with ourselves all day?’” she says. Tina offers an example of how this plays out in real life. “Your intention may be to give your best to the world,” she says. “And, sure, that sounds airy-fairy, but then you break it down, first to a value—I want to be of service to my community and then to a goal: By the end of this month I’m going to volunteer five hours of time to my local homeless shelter.”
Intention can imbue with meaning small tasks that would otherwise be annoying (and easy to put off). “For me, I value my well-being and sense of serenity,” Tina says, “and that translates into the goal that by the end of next weekend, I’m going to unpack the boxes in the corner of my office.”
You can even be intentional about wasting time, points out Mallika Chopra. Mallika is the founder and CEO of Intent.com, an online community where members support one another in moving from intention to actions. In her book Living With Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy, Mallika describes how she learned to stop chastising herself for playing video games or checking in with friends on Facebook, things she found relaxing and pleasurable and that didn’t take time away from her other priorities, like sleep. “What if I welcome activities into my life just because they’re fun and feel good?” she mused. “Just thinking about indulging in my ‘bad habits’ free of guilt makes me feel lighter and less stressed.”
While goals are focused on future outcomes, intentions are about how we want to show up in our lives in the present. Jamie Price is the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Stop, Breathe & Think, a wellness app that offers brief guided meditations. Eight months pregnant as she chats, she says her overriding intention right now is “to nourish my child with food as well as with what I’m thinking and doing.”
One way she fulfills that intention is by taking a nightly walk with her husband. “We’ve been married for five years and it’s easy to take someone’s presence for granted,” she says. “Instead, I’ve been trying to foster a kind, attentive and loving presence with my husband on a daily basis. After dinner we walk through the neighborhood together for 40 minutes, inhaling the smells of rose and jasmine or walking to a cliff above the ocean at sunset. Since I’ve been pregnant, we try to leave the devices at home so we can talk about our day or just hold hands and walk in silence.”
How Intentions Help Us Learn and Perform Better
When your yoga teacher asks you to set an intention before class, she’s actually inviting you to turn on parts of your brain that wouldn’t be activated if you just went through your sun salutations mindlessly. Intention, it turns out, is not some kumbaya concept; when we engage with intention it actually shows up in brain scans.
Neuroscience research has demonstrated that when you watch someone else’s movements or actions with the intention of engaging in that same behavior yourself, neurons in your brain that make up the “action observation network” are stimulated. In one study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, for example, students watched videos of another person putting together or disassembling a Tinkertoy structure. One group of students simply watched the video; another group was told that they’d have to construct that same object a few minutes later. Brain scans showed that students who were watching with intent had more activity occurring in a part of the brain called the intraparietal cortex.
Another study, by language researcher and University of Ottawa, Ontario, professor Larry Vandergrift, Ph.D., confirmed the power of listening with intent. Working with undergraduates learning French as a second language, half the students were given guidance in active listening. Before the lesson began, they were instructed to mentally review what they already knew; to form an intention to “listen out for” what was important; to bring their attention back to the words being spoken by their instructor, if it wandered; and to take note of what they didn’t understand without allowing their focus to be undermined. The control group wasn’t given any instructions. The results: The students who listened with attention and intention significantly outscored the less skilled listeners in a test of comprehension.
Whether it’s perfecting your eagle pose, your subjunctive French verbs or any other endeavor that’s important to you, engaging with intention will give you a performance boost. And science shows that’s just the beginning of how intentions can change your life.
The Neuroscience of Intentions
Shifting your perspective from goals to thoughtful intentions just might be the secret sauce in achieving your dreams. That’s according to some fascinating research that’s coming out of science labs, including that of social psychologist Elliot Berkman, Ph.D. Elliot is the director of the Social & Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oregon, and he and his team are studying a field called “motivation neuroscience.” They use neuroimaging tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to learn how our brains support setting, pursuing and eventually succeeding, or failing, in achieving behavioral changes like smoking cessation and dieting. The field has established that when people are thinking about core values or reflecting on the self, there’s activation of the “self-processing regions” of the brain, including the medial prefrontal cortex.
If you can recruit this part of your brain, even difficult activities will seem less effortful, Elliot says, because you’re getting the signal that what you’re doing is the most important thing to you. You’re not paying what both psychologists and economists call an “opportunity cost,” forgoing the rewards you might have reaped if you were doing something else instead. Elliot wants to help people find a way to turn extrinsic goals—something they pursue because of external pressure, like their doctor advising them to lose weight to avoid diabetes—into intrinsic goals, ones they seek because they’re connected to their enduring passions and principles.
In other words, Elliot says, identify why resisting that cookie shores up your values and beliefs and—bingo!—you’re in the arena of intention and you’ve ignited those powerful self-processing parts of the brain.
“If you can find a way to put your goals into alignment with who you want to be in the broadest sense,” he says, “that will provide powerful and sustainable reinforcement for the changes you want to make.” Elliot calls this alignment “psychic chiropractic,” and he says the most effective way to practice it is through self-affirmations. Studies show that affirming values and beliefs is potent: It boosts self-control, lifts your mood, expands your sense of yourself and your capabilities, offers protection against stress and makes you more open to feedback and to persevering in the face of setbacks.
In Elliot’s lab, self-affirmations begin with people choosing the two or three core values that are most important to them from a list of 10 or 12 that might include honesty, loyalty, family, honor, friendship, creativity, courage and love. Then the participants are asked to spend a couple of minutes writing about what each means to them. In an ongoing experiment, Elliot and his team parse these essays into brief snippets, such as, “Family is the most important thing to me.” Those affirmations are then sent to the writers two or three times a day.
Here’s how you can apply this science to your life: If you wanted to lose 10 pounds, for example, you might connect with the intention, “I want to be a healthy and active parent,” or “I want to experience life with energy and vigor.” Then, you’d text yourself this avowal before you head out to dinner or the supermarket. (You can schedule texts with apps like TextItLater or Delayd.) Overcoming temptation—whether a molten chocolate pie, staying in bed instead of going to the gym or procrastinating when you have a difficult project to complete—is all about increasing the value of long-term, abstract rewards so they’re greater than the reward in front of you, Elliot says. The tipping point, he adds, is tapping into our “self-concept of who we are and who we want to be.”
Intent Alert: Attention Required
Staying aligned with our intentions takes effort and vigilance. Elliot uses the word “deliberate” to describe actions that are intentional. “Acting automatically is less costly in terms of energy than acting with deliberation,” he says. “Our brains evolved to be energy conserving, so unless we pay attention, they’ll default to habit and inertia. On a neuroscience level, being intentional is a bottleneck.”
One reliable way to break that bottleneck is by maintaining a regular meditation practice. Committing to a daily practice of spending just a few moments in silence, cultivating a contemplative mindset, provides access, Mallika says, to “a deeper well of understanding, insight and awareness.” This heightened self-knowledge can also help you recognize why you feel drained and help you discover what fills you up. In this way, mindfulness functions as an early warning system when you begin to stray from your intentions. Hugh offers an example. A couple of years ago he was in the habit each evening of pouring himself a small glass of Dogfish Head, his favorite beer, and dishing out a scoop or two of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, then chilling in front of the TV.
“It wasn’t a large amount of beer or ice cream,” he says, “but after a while it felt like something I was doing by rote, and I began to feel a little neediness and a lack of spaciousness and ease. It was getting in the way of my intention to be fully present and fully at ease.” Hugh now stops watching TV after 10:30 at night, and while he still has an occasional glass of beer or wine, he does so out of conscious choice and not habit.
On the other hand, Sam Chase, who co-owns New York City’s Yoga to the People studio, sees no need to abandon his sometime habit of stopping in at a local pinball parlor for an hour of what he admits is “vegging out.” “It’s an immersive experience, and a way to decompress from a hard day, but it’s not high stakes,” Sam says. Bouncing steel balls off the flippers in a pinball game leaves him “recharged.”
That sense of replenishment, Tina points out, is evidence that you’re nourishing your intentions. “When you’re using your energy in a healthy way you feel energized,” she says. “When you’re not, you feel depleted and empty.” Get to know yourself through meditation and you’ll easily cue into the difference between the pleasant fatigue that follows, say, an 8-mile run or an afternoon spent building sets for a community theater production, and the lethargy you experience after you’ve camped out on the sofa and aimlessly dawdled away two hours watching infomercials.
How to Set Intentions
Whether you come to it from a mind-body perspective or the mindset of a scientist, the guidelines on how to set intentions have the same starting point: Devote some quiet time to clarifying what matters most to you. Hugh suggests asking yourself the question: What’s my deepest longing for the world and myself? (The answer for him is “peace, loving relationships and a more compassionate world.”) Next, says Hugh, “identify habits that prevent you from living out these intentions, and commit to take action to change those habits.” Then, begin to align your moment-to-moment thoughts and actions with the qualities you want to cultivate. Ask yourself, Hugh suggests, “Does this thought/ action/response serve happiness? Does it support my deepest aspirations?”
Mallika is a big fan of what she calls “microintents”—small steps that, she says, make our day-to-day lives happier and healthier and also help give clarity and momentum to long-term intentions. Mallika’s microintents included starting a book club with some friends and meeting a close pal for walks in nature instead of their usual breakfast or lunch date.
“With these small changes, my whole life shifted,” Mallika says. “For me, intentions are soulful. They’re the expression of who we aspire to be physically, emotionally and spiritually. When we ask ourselves, what is going to make me feel happy, more connected, healthy and of purpose, we plant the seeds of what we yearn for in our lives.”
Read more about intention: 4 Ways to Live Each Day With Intention
Shelley Levitt is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and editor at large for Live Happy. Her work has appeared in Real Simple, People, SUCCESS and more.