In business and in life, we are most accustomed to setting goals. While goals enable forward progress and help us feel productive, advanced leaders that achieve truly impactful results begin with intentions. Advanced leaders understand the importance of intentions in business and in life. In this blog, I’ll explain and provide real examples that illustrate why it’s essential to begin with intentions and then design goals based on intentions. Prepare to deepen and expand your impact and experience, at work and in life.

First, some definitions: Goals are concrete actions and tasks that should be completed in order for forward progress to happen. A goal has a Yes or No checkbox next to it that you can check if it was accomplished and completed. A goal is what you do or what you are going to do.

An intention is an aim, rather than a set task or action. An intention is an aim for change or impact, that sets that direction for action. You’ll see some examples later on in this article. There are a million different ways (or actions) to fulfill an intention. An intention also often represents why you do something, and it alludes to a way of acting. Intentions can sound aspirational, lofty, or spiritual. Sometimes they are. However, when understood and set with care, intentions are powerful for setting goals that make way for larger, more meaningful progress and productivity.

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Why is it important to start with intention?

In life, especially in business, we often start with goals. Why? There is a good reason. If something’s working, setting goals is efficient. If clothing needs to be delivered to 100 homes tomorrow, set the goal. If the team needs to complete the project by next week, set the sub-goals to complete it on time. If we need to pick up food for dinner, set the goal.

However, without setting and reconnecting to the intention, the larger and aim and why is lost. Without intention, our actions are inefficient or even unnecessary. Since an intention is an aim or direction, it directs and aligns the more concrete actions (goals) that follow. Without a higher level and why and larger aim, we often get stuck in the weeds and our smaller actions become obsolete or don’t add up to anything meaningful in terms of the larger, or longer-term impact. After putting so much energy into actions and progress, we find that our actions really aren’t resulting in the impacts we desire.

Especially when conditions change or circumstances are different, setting goals without intention is dangerous. This applies to our lives as well. Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate how setting goals first caused the team or the leader to go off track.

Example 1: Customer Success

Lisa is the Direction of Customer Success at a company that delivers flowers. During the holiday season, Lisa and her team set a goal to double earnings versus last year during the holiday season. To fulfill this goal, they sent out offers with discounts and designed creative marketing campaigns. They achieved the goal!

In the spring, a few months later, their sales plummeted to an all-time low. Lisa asked her team to directly reach out to customers asking why they were not regularly ordering flowers as usual. Many regular customers responded that the deep discounts given over the holidays and push to buy frustrated them. Though they enjoyed the discount, the tone of the emails turned them off as a customer.

Lisa questioned her approach. Her goal was to double earnings but was her aim to disengage customers? By setting a short-term goal, she lost sight of the larger why, or intention, for her team, which is to engage and delight customers. She reconnected to her intention of engaging and delighting customers and set goals around that aim rather than starting with narrow goals with short-term wins only. At each team meeting, they begin goal setting with the team mission and central intention in mind before setting and reviewing concrete goals.

 

Example 2: Operational Success

Tom is the manager of a regional shipping center. Tom’s shipping center is part of a company that has a network of a dozen shipping centers. His team member, Nick, has been working at the shipping center for over three years. One day, Nick approached Tom and mentioned that he would like an opportunity to learn something new or gain management experience. Tom said he would think about it. Tom was preoccupied because the team needed to meet their goal of packing and shipping 800 packages this month, with only 16 more days to accomplish the goal.

The next month came around, and Nick approached Tom asking if he’d though about his request. Tom said that he hadn’t had the time given the previous busy month and this month’s shipping goal being even larger.

The next month came and Nick approached Tom. This time, Nick gave his notice to Tom, with the explanation that he had found a management position at another shipping company. Tom was happy for Nick but also taken aback. Tom realized that he had been preoccupied with the shipping goals that he had lost sight of the larger intention or aim for his management position, which was to maintain and grow the business. This did not only include metric-based goals but also included goals around retaining and growing the team.

Tom lost sight of his intention to grow the business and the many sub-goals that fall within that intention, regardless of how it can be measured in concrete goals. Tom decided that, each week, he would reconnect with his larger intention as a leader to maintain and grow the center’s business, and set concrete goals around that based on the all the current and relevant circumstances.

 

Example 3: Personal Success

Allison needed a change. She came to me one day and said that she was going to get a job in investment banking because she wanted to make more money and live in a nicer apartment. She set the goal to get her annual bonus and move into nicer apartment. She did just that over the course of the next ten months.

A few months later, she came to visit me and was still unhappy. Why?, I asked. You are living in your new single apartment. She explained that her other friend had seemed happy living in this apartment building so she thought she would as well, but the apartment didn’t really bring her happiness. Though her goal was to make more money to live in a nicer apartment, that goal didn’t really make her happier or make her feel abundant… which was her intention, or her aim.

She set an intention to find more genuine happiness and abundance. She brainstormed what she knew made her happy and new things she could try. These were her goals that aligned with her intention to feel happy, rather than starting with goals that looked to make others happy. She knew that in school, having a community and exercising regularly made her happy. She joined a running club and started attending the weekly group runs.

The next time she visited she said that her happiness had improved as well as her lifestyle. By starting with the intention, rather than the goal, she designed goals that aligned with her intentions rather than going through unnecessary, unfruitful actions.


As you can see, in both work and life, it’s essential to begin with the intention (the why) and continue to return to it to make sure your actions align and lead toward true, meaningful progress. When you start with a goal (the what) alone, there is often wasted energy in the action, especially over time. Even if the intention is just to have fun, it’s a connected and fruitful intention to set before setting goals for how you’ll do that. It’s much more fulfilling to begin with your own intention than starting with an aimless goal. There is more determination and confidence in the meaning behind the action.

There are many intentions you could choose. Looking to others to see what they’re doing and deciding to do the same or better is do-able. However, setting an intention is more about realizing what the intention is than choosing what the intention should be. Setting a larger intention for your day or your life, as to why you’re living it or a larger aim for it is challenging, but it’s there. Let’s look at how to set intentions and some example of how to set goals based on intentions.

 

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How to Set Intentions

To some, setting an intention may seem simple: Of course I want to grow the business. Of course I want to live a healthy and happy life. However, we so often start with goals because it’s harder to define what grow the business or live a healthy and happy life means without looking outward to others to copy their actions and make them our goals that may not really fulfill the intention for us or for our customers.

It’s at first harder to set an intention and ask yourself: what goals fulfill this intention, really? However, this skill of setting an intention and setting goals based on intention is leading rather than following. Setting an intention, connecting and committing to it, and setting goals around that intention, based on your own experience and discernment is taking the lead. Copying another’s actions or goals is following.

The way I set intentions is to practice daily writing. Writing for 15–30 minutes in the morning, in a quiet space alone, is a way to reconnect with yourself and your intentions. A prompt is to ask yourself: What is your aim? What do you need? What do you desire? Take some time to write responses to these prompts. It may take a few days or weeks or responding to them to really get deeper, more meaningful and true responses.

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How to Translate Intentions into Meaningful, Productive Goals

1 Begin with your intention. 

Here are some examples of intentions:

 

2 Physically set goals stemming from the intention.

Write it down. You can do this by using the mind map below.

Use this mind map structure to set goals based on your intention. Click image for downloadable pdf!

Intentions and Goals Map

 

3 Set sub-goals.

You can continue, in a second layer of the mind map, to set sub-goals.

 

4 Track progress.

Cross off (or use different color) for goals you have completed. Reconnect with your intention weekly to make sure your goals and the completion of them is leading toward your inteniton.

Use this framework for your own personal intention and goal setting, or for your team meetings as well. Place your team’s mission in the center, or mission for a project, and set the goals based on the intention together so all are in alignment.

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Examples of Intention Setting and Goal Setting

Finally, here are some examples of how intentions can translate into goals using the mind map structure.

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Same Intention, Different Goals

Just like the third example of Allison, people can have the same intention but need to set different goals to achieve it. Here is another example of how people with the same intention can have totally different goals, or manifestations of the intention. Two maps with the same intention yet completely different ways of fulfilling it.


This speaks to why it is important that we find a culture where we fit, in business and life terms. The intention of the team must be a shared, collective intention in order to have goals that are in alignment and lead toward progress toward that intention. It goes the other way, too. When we are given a goal or think a goal looks like a good idea, always ask: Does it align with our intentions? Does it fit under the umbrella of our larger intention or is it tangent or misaligned?

In our personal lives and society as a whole, we must have an open mind and be accepting and equanimous toward other people who have different ways of fulfilling their intentions or different intentions all together. As long as the intentions don’t harm others and they are ethical, we can find a way to accommodate and compromise to fulfill our collective intentions and goals while having a diverse array of individual intentions and actions. It’s what makes things interesting. We can learn from others by seeing how they fulfill their intentions, but still practice discernment about how we need and want to fulfill our own intentions for our life or for our work.

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What is your intention? How will you fulfill it?

The gift of freedom is that we can dream, we can learn, and we can choose.

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