I was out for coffee catching up with a friend last week and I mentioned I was trying to get back in shape. Becoming a parent entails some pretty devastating self-negligence. All your focus is on cultivating this beautiful new life and there's just no time for self-care. Exercise, nutrition, meditation, and even hygiene, it all takes a hit. Anyway, in the conversation, I mentioned how I'd set an 'intention' to take care of my body a little bit more each week. My friend stopped me and asked a really interesting question: "what's the difference between a goal and an intention?"
I suddenly became aware of the language I was using. Why am I saying 'intention' and not 'goal'? I most definitely picked this up from mindfulness teachers, but what's the difference? Thanks to my friend, I realized that I use these two words very differently. The shift in language captures a shift in my approach to self-care. When my friend asked about it, my instinctive response was that 'goals' are based on specific outcomes, whereas 'intentions' are more open-ended. Instead of focusing on a specific result which may not be fully in my control, my intentions hold much less pressure for a certain outcome. I simply devote some time to the cause and leave it at that.
I find specific, measurable goals useful for work, but they haven't been as effective in more personal endeavours. For example, if I set a goal to 'run 10km by the end of the summer' or 'lose 10 pounds by the end of the month', what's the real motivation here? Sure, I'd work hard. But I'd be working hard to avoid the self-doubt, shame, and feelings of failure. And the moment I slip, I find myself overcome with self-criticism and the whole process starts to feel like a slog. I start to feel like I'm behind and stress about it. Even if I do stick to a solid routine, despite my best efforts, I might not get to 10 km or 10 pounds. Then I end up feeling totally disempowered even though I really did put in the work!
After 6 months of focusing on the baby, I probably could stand to lose 10 pounds by next month, but I won't set that as a specific, measurable goal for myself. It would set me up for failure in the long-term. I'm trying to be healthier in general, not just starve myself and overdo it at the gym for 1 month. Instead, I've designated time in my week to simply 'take care of my body'. Nothing more specific than that. Yesterday, I didn't feel like exercising, so I took a hot bath. Instead of forcing it, or guiltily skipping it, I simply took care of my body in another way. The bathwater was refreshing, but so was the self-acceptance. I didn't exercise yesterday, yet I didn't feel like a failure either. Overall, I am indeed exercising more and I'm way more likely to keep it up long-term without all the self-judgment. And that's the point.
I had that coffee with my friend a few weeks ago, and since then, he's been reframing a few of his goals into intentions using this approach. He just shared a beautiful example from his experience and that's what inspired me to write this letter. He gave me permission to share his story with all of you:
A goal I had previously: finish reading 1 book every month. The intention is now to spend 30-60 minutes everyday reading and thinking about that reading. The goal was such a sad way to go about it — some books and writings are far too heavy to process in the course of a month and, as a reader, I wasn't doing justice to some great work and I wasn't giving myself the space to really appreciate some insightful things written by the author. Now, when I come across an excerpt that sparks deep thought, I pause, reflect, sometimes journal, and let my mind think more critically about what I read without any guilt kicking in. Just before our chat, the mindset was very much focused on quantity and not quality... simply as a byproduct of how I framed the goal of 1 book per month. The best part is I'm enjoying reading far more than I ever did.
Goals have their place, no doubt about that. But they can also make some of the most beautiful things in life feel like chores. Instead of absorbing knowledge and inspiration from the world's literature while enjoying the calming experience of reading, this friend was trying to power through it all to hit some arbitrary number. Take a moment to reflect on your goals. Are you sure you want to count calories when you could be exploring the art of healthy cooking? Isn't there some bitter irony in demanding yourself to meditate everyday if you just end up stressed about it? And what's the point in watching less Netflix if you spend all your newly freed time scrolling through social media feeds?
Self-care can be a joy - don't set goals which suck all the fun out of it. Sometimes, open-ended intentions which feel instantly attainable can turn your pursuits into a celebration. Our culture of hyper-efficiency and productivity encourages us to set massive goals and grind it out. It's a cult of aggressive self-optimization. We expect ourselves to reach lofty goals as soon as humanly possible. But we don't leave ourselves any space for flexibility, self-acceptance, and enjoyment. Positive states of mind are essential to keep your fire burning in the long run. In my experience, this has led to much stronger and more lasting habits. Less guilt, less shame, more energy, more fun.
Have a great weekend, y'all.