Intention is an interesting concept to explore. Theoretically, it’s something we are good at. Theoretically it is one of the primary qualities that separates us from the rest of the species on the planet. A fundamental act of human behaviour is the ability to insert a gap between stimulus and response, and make a choice about what that response should look like. When something happens, we get to decide what we do. There is an implicit assumption that we then do the thing.
As a concept, intention covers both the deciding of the choice and acting upon it. A brief check of the dictionary offers up definitions that include, “what one intends to do or bring about.” The same definition also suggests, “a determination to act in a certain way; resolve.” All of that gets reinforced with, “import; significance.”
There is a fascinating sliding scale of meaning and—well—intention in all of that. We move from a relatively passive expectation of bringing about some thing to determination that it will happen to a reinforcement that such actions have meaning and importance and significance in being realized. When we speak of “acting with intention” it is usually that sense of determination and importance that is being reinforced. It strips away accidental or tangential pursuits and places the object of our intention front and centre.
All of this is reasonable, until that thing around which we have a theoretical intention doesn’t practically happen. At this point, we have to ask what is going on. Where did the intention go, and what showed up in its place? Did the importance of the intended act go away? Or did something else occur?
The reality is that while intention might be our unique gift as human beings, we don’t always use it. At the very least, follow through doesn’t occur with the same degree of frequency and expectation that one might normally expect. This is particularly true when we are doing something challenging. Our desire to attain an outcome runs up against the change in inertia required to make it happen. While the work might be engaging and inspiring, it also requires effort. We need to make a commitment, and sometimes we’d rather just lie in, laze around and chill.
The barriers towards acting with intention are many. Procrastination is an easy and obvious one. While we may have aspirations to greatness, our current level of inertia may preclude us from wanting to realize them. At least, not right now. Procrastination is a big enough topic to warrant its own post—and I may well get there someday—but for the purposes of today’s exploration, suffice it to say that we are putting off for tomorrow what we could do today.
For some, procrastination is motivating; they need the urgency of an impending deadline, even one that they have created for themselves, to inspire the urgency to take action. For everyone, there is a point at which it will become overwhelming, where the looming deadline swamps any ability to actually accomplish the task. More importantly, there is a constant compromise in procrastination between the quality of what is desired and what actually gets produced by the end.
Interestingly, there’s an underlying strategic rationalization behind procrastination and the quality of the end results. The delay—and the corresponding rush to get something passable completed by the deadline—becomes a defence against doing the best work possible. Rather than conceiving—and owning—what ultimate delivery of a solution should look like, we accept “good enough” given the circumstances. Whether that is actually good enough is a separate question. Since we have allowed deadline pressure to compromise quality, we avoid the fear and stress of being judged on what our best work might have been, because it never sees the light of day.
The idea of creating outs and off-ramps for ourselves lies directly alongside the challenge of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is an inner anxiety of not being good enough, not being qualified enough and about to be found out. It’s experienced by a surprising number of people, many of whom are, in actual reality, capable, talented, competent and successful. The trouble is that they don’t feel that they own or deserve their success, that it was a product of luck more than talent.
Undermining ourselves and engaging in self-sabotage is not an uncommon way of managing the consequences of imposter syndrome. Rather than staking our claim and striving for our best work, we create situations where our best work isn’t possible. We create paths and avenues and whole expressways that allow us to skirt the heavy lifting of doing awesome work, so that we avoid the potential—but unlikely—critique of our work being found to be inadequate.
The other major way we compromise our ability to act with intention is the question of whether we are actually allowed to do so. This is particularly problematic in bureaucracies and strong hierarchies, but it extends to many other aspects of human organization. Each of us interprets the roles that we play differently and within those roles, the rules and boundaries with which we are expected to comply. A refusal to act can be the result of an internal narrative that says we aren’t allowed, that it isn’t our role or that we don’t have permission.
While our internal dialogue about whether we have permission or not can be related to imposter syndrome, it doesn’t have to be. What it does relate to is how we see ourselves, and the value we place on ourselves and our ability to act. On good days, we can see ourselves as strong, capable and independent. On less-than-good days we can play small, feel restricted and be dependent on others for approval or permission. In doing so, we completely undermine our ability to act with intention and purpose, and displace it with a cautious response to everyone else. We are diminishing our own agency in favour of what we perceive others expecting or wanting from us.
In all of these examples, we stop making independent decisions for ourselves, and give outsized influence to exterior forces. We not only stop acting with intention, but we curtail our ability to do so and constrain the results that we might otherwise make possible. While acting this way is understandable and human, it isn’t helpful.
Overcoming these obstacles and acting with intention—and retaining this capacity—takes work. Many of the roadblocks that we manufacture for ourselves are the product of a lifetime of habit, so shifting gears and acting differently can be difficult. That’s not to say that it’s not possible, but it does acknowledge that it will require more effort than just shaking off your ennui and shifting your perspective (although that is unquestionably part of it).
The first part of acting with intention is actually knowing what you are trying to accomplish. You need to make choices. This may be the most difficult part, because choice by definition involves deciding to pursue some options at the expense of others. Stating an actual direction can feel paralyzing, particularly if we get too wound up with making the “right” choice or being fearful that we might be making a “wrong” choice.
Having intention doesn’t mean that what you commit to must remain forever unchanged. You will adapt, you will experiment, you will try things that are promising and you will find other things that don’t work. That’s all part of moving forward. As you learn, you will also shift focus and direction as different avenues emerge and different paths appear more promising. None of this is vacillating or changing your mind. All of it is about knowing the ultimate result you hope to attain, and continuing to course correct in that direction.
Creating space for your best work also means confronting your notions of perfectionism and getting the results just right. An approach that values experimentation and adjustment is one that implicitly acknowledges and allows for mistakes. Mistakes are how we know we are learning. In the wrong hands, mistakes can feel like wasted effort. While you may want everything to be perfect at all times, trying to do so means either setting yourself up for failure or setting the bar so low that you can clear it falling out of bed.
The most significant aspect of acting with intention is recognizing that the emphasis needs to be on intention, not acting. The actions are important, and we need to keep intent on moving forward and doing the work. But it is the outcome that we need to keep front and centre. Knowing where we are going—and why that is important—not only helps recognize when strategy might need to shift, it also helps keep ourselves motivated and moving.
Above all, acting with intention requires being honest with ourselves. For some, external accountability is important in making forward progress; if that’s you, and you know that about yourself, then more power to you. But the most important accountability is to ourselves. The person that most needs to know your choices and preferences is you. Owning up to and defining what you are committing to, and making a concrete commitment to yourself, might feel both ridiculous and at the same time incredibly challenging. Bottom line, it’s what you need to do. For you to act with intention, you need to have an intention, and you need to own that intention.
Intention is ultimately about choice, commitment and follow through. You can have the greatest strategy in the world—the most exciting idea, the most exhilarating suggestion or the most engaging pursuits—and not following through gets you nowhere. It’s not enough to express a want. You need to declare it (at least to yourself) and you need to own it. Having intention isn’t just about declaring a direction; it is about showing up and with all enthusiasm and commitment working to realize your goal. Intention is what makes all the planning worthwhile; without it, the planning part is pointless.