Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Goals, resolutions, and setting an intention. What’s the difference?

Goals, resolutions, and setting an intention. What’s the difference?

by James Porter January 24, 2019

Goals, resolutions, and setting an intention. What’s the difference?

I heard an interviewer the other day ask Martha Stewart what her New Year’s Resolutions were for coming year. Without hesitation she responded: “I never make New Year’s resolutions because the minute I vow to give something up I want it even more than I did before.” 

A study on New Year’s Resolutions 

That sent me to Google to do some research on goals, New Year’s resolutions, and setting intentions. Are they effective? It turns out, according one study done at the University of Scranton, creating New Year’s resolutions really does work. Here’s a short excerpt from an article in Psychology Today that describes the study which followed 200 participants over the course of 2 years:  

Seventy-seven percent were able to keep their resolutions for one week. At a month, 64 percent reported success. That fell to 50 percent after three months and 46 percent after six months. Only 19 percent deemed themselves successful in reaching their goal when researchers followed up two years later.

While that might not seem like a good success rate, the study found that people who made resolutions were 10 times more likely to make a positive change after six months compared to people who wanted to change but did not make a New Year’s resolution. So there is some evidence that making a resolution is worthwhile. 

What about setting goals. Is that more effective? 

It’s funny, when you google “does setting goals work” the first page is almost ALL about “Why setting goals doesn’t work.” One article I read in Forbes by Pia Silva, didn’t really say whether setting goals works but focused instead on how to avoid the pitfalls that tend to undermine your eventual success. She says that you need to understand what you REALLY want out of your goals and why. For example, if you really want more freedom, the business you may be dreaming of starting – even if wildly successful – may do more to tie you down than the job you currently are dreaming of leaving. 

The key here is to see the big picture and figure out what you really want. Setting a goal of losing 20 pounds vs. setting a goal of eating healthier and feeling better is a good example of how, if you don’t dig deeper when setting a goal, you may ultimately fail. Wanting to look thinner may get you started in the right direction, but feeling better and living healthier may ultimately be more effective in getting you to where you REALLY want to be. 

And what about setting intentions?  

If you have ever taken any yoga classes, you’ve probably heard your yoga teacher talk about “setting an intention.” What does that even mean? Goals, as it turns out are future oriented. And if you’ve ever set some really big annual goals (aka, BHAG goals: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) like I have, and NOT achieved them, sometimes at the end of the year this can make you feel more like a failure than a success. 

Intentions are rooted in the present moment. For example, you might start by asking yourself: How can I behave in a way today that will enhance my level of happiness and contentment now and in the future? In this regard, I’m setting daily intentions built on developing more gratitude, listening more, offering forgiveness and fostering kindness. There’s no success or failure with an intention. You just keep it in your awareness to the greatest degree possible and see what happens.  

If this all sounds a bit “wu-wu,” keep in mind, there’s quite a bit of research now (see Barbara Frederickson’s research at the University of North Carolina on gratefulness and loving kindness) that suggests these practices really do help create a very real sense of positivity in people’s lives.  

And if you turn these practices into a meditation (like a loving kindness meditation) it can actually change the structure of your own brain. Sara Lazar’s research at Harvard has proven that even 30 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation for as little as eight weeks increases the area of the brain (the left side of the pre-frontal cortex) responsible for fostering happiness and contentment. 

And let’s face it, if keeping your New Year’s resolutions or working toward your annual goals feel like a real grind, they are probably not going to work in the long run. Try setting an intention instead. What you get back right now in terms of greater happiness, may ultimately lead to where you REALLY want to be in the future. 

By James E. Porter

James Porter
James Porter