BY ALISON MILLER, PHD, OWNER OF THE DISSERTATION COACH
Have you started a new year with a resolution to exercise more, lose weight, or be more productive only to lose sight of your goal within a few months or weeks? If so, you are not alone. Setting resolutions can produce behavioral changes, but those changes are often only temporary. When you set a resolution, you tend to reference the past (what do I need to fix or change so I avoid repeating my past) or your future (what do I need to do to avoid negative outcomes in the future). In this way, your resolutions can anchor your mind in the past and future instead of in the present moment where you actually have the power to take positive action and influence outcomes. So what is a good alternative?
Instead of resolutions, consider setting intentions.
As academic writers, most of us are quite familiar with setting goals, but we may be less familiar with setting intentions. A goal is a desired outcome that you wish to attain in the future, whereas an intention is a choice you make to act in a particular way in the present. For example, you may have a goal of finishing a chapter next month and an intention of working in a calm and focused manner for the next 45 minutes. Intentions are about proactively and consciously choosing how we want to go about reaching our goals. By setting intentions, we “flavor” how we engage with our academic work (and all of life).
Here are some guidelines to help you set intentions that make a difference.
Identify what you want. The first step to setting an intention is clarifying your goals–what outcomes you want to experience. Then, consider what guiding intention will help you effectively move toward your goal. You may then want to go deeper and consider what feeling you want to experience when you achieve the goal. Feeling words that come to you might be linked to emotions (satisfied, proud, relieved) or might be qualities (committed, deliberate, powerful). When you connect your intention to a feeling, it may reveal deeper wants–even your values–and give you potent language for your intentions. Being in touch with the feeling makes the intention more alive and meaningful.
Clarify how you need to be. Goals are about doing while intentions are about being. When you focus on how you need to be to achieve your goals, the doing often becomes easier. Imagine for a moment that you have achieved your goals. For example, you finished a chapter or received notification that an article you wrote was accepted for publication. When you imagine yourself in that moment, what qualities do you see in yourself? What ways of operating now would serve you to get there? We recommend spending time contemplating and journaling about the qualities that you would like to embody as you seek to produce results and desired outcomes.
Set intentions you believe in now. Setting intentions is not enough. We need to believe in our intentions. If you set an intention that you don’t believe is possible, you are limiting yourself right from the start. Set intentions that feel attainable given your mental, emotional, and physical state and the specific work you are doing. For example, if you are experiencing a lot of resistance to working, and the intention of being creative feels out of reach, you can set a “starter” intention: some way of being that you fully believe you can achieve now. Instead of being creative you might intend to be present or to be caring. You can move forward with this “starter” intention, and later, when you are in a different state, you can once again set the intention to be creative.
Revise your intentions as needed. Intentions are not set in stone. Your cognitive, emotional, and physical state is always changing. Your academic work and what it needs from you is always changing. So, your intentions are best implemented in a way that honors the dynamic nature of being human and the process of doing academic research and writing. Be willing to observe the version of you who shows up to work in the moment and what that version needs to engage effectively with your work. Be willing to observe the iterative process of your work and what the work itself needs from you over time. Allow the reality of what is unfolding to guide your choice of intentions in an organic way.
Reinforce your intentions. You may find it easy to set intentions and just as easy to forget them! When you set an intention, take a few moments to document it where you are likely to see it. Many writers jot down their intentions on post-it notes and stick them on their desk. Check in with your intentions regularly. Are you present to your intentions? Are they flavoring how you are working?
What intentions are not.
- Intentions are not about fixing yourself.
- You are not broken.
You may be working through a particular challenge or learning something new. Intentions are a way to orient and support yourself as you do this work. The process of setting intentions helps you clarify your goals and values and puts you in charge of how you want to go about pursuing those goals and living out those values. YOU decide how you want to be. If you notice a discrepancy between how you intend to work and how you are going about doing it, simply notice that discrepancy without judgment. Then ask yourself what adjustments you can make to better align with your intentions.