July 5, 2018

Setting Intentions: How To Actually Make Things Happen

setting intentions


Are you wondering how setting intentions can improve your life and the pursuit of your biggest goals?


You’ve probably heard of setting intentions. It’s a popular word among goal setting teachers and high achievers. Setting intentions is even said to be the missing link between a goal setting and the actual achievement, while others say that it takes you from wishing to making a solid plan.

Either way, everyone knows that setting intentions is a crucial step needed to increase the odds that you will arrive where you desire to be in the future.

So whether you want to increase the chances that your day will go as planned, or plant an idea for a future goal in your mind like inception, here is everything you need to know about setting intentions, and how to do it successfully.

This post contains affiliate links to products that will help you with setting intentions. I may make a commision on some of them. They work, I promise. You can read more about here.

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Setting Intentions in Three Sections

  • Goal Intentions
  • Implementation Intentions
  • Clarity of Purpose

Mental Imagery (Goal Intentions):

There is a lot that goes on “behind the scenes” when setting intentions. One of them is called mental imagery.

Mental imagery is a more academic way of saying “visualizing”. The term basically means to experience in the mind before it manifests into your external reality. We know that our minds are powerful enough to create a relatively accurate representation of circumstances, even without the external circumstances playing out, and this can be a powerful tool when used properly.

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When setting intentions for your daily routine and goals, seeing them first in your mind is going to be what takes you to the next level.

  1. Using mental imagery prepares your body for the circumstance when it does come
  2. Gives you a clear vision of what the success of your goal looks like, and allows you to move in that direction
  3. The brain is known to react to the circumstance as though it has already done it, giving you the ability to execute your plan as though you’ve already practiced it

Mental imagery is just that, an image you have in your mind of what you plan to do when “example A” happens.

When Mental imagery Is Effective

  1. Setting an intention about how you will experience your day: positive or negative
  2. How you will react when old habits spring up again in your life, and what you will do about them
  3. As a mental plan for execution for everything from mundane tasks each day to how you will achieve your goals

To be clear, an aspect of setting intentions is mental imagery, which aids you in taking action in your life: from simple day-to-do actions all the way up to your biggest dreams.

  1. Humans are known to perform better with a clear plan in their head
  2. Pre-perception and weak perception, parts of mental imagery, allow you to prepare yourself for what is to come before it happens, and actually causes you to react better and faster than when mental imagery is not present

Read about Mental Imagery here

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Intention Implementation

When setting intentions for behavior and goals, we separate the two into further categories: goals to achieve, or goals to get rid of something.

These normally have to do with attaining some status that we desire in the future, like building muscle or getting a promotion or breaking a bad habit, like smoking.

After the initial desire in the mind (goal intention) implementation intentions are the next step and increase our odds of success more than only setting a goal intention. This is because goal intentions are desires and visualizations of the result. Implementation is a visualization of the process. Which makes all the difference.

If we were to only set a goal intention, we would tell ourselves that by a certain time, we want to have put on twenty lbs of lean muscle.

When we do this, several problems creep up:

  1. It’s possible for us to fail to get started
  2. We experience difficulty in staying our course
  3. We can overextend ourselves

Not to mention that setting intentions for our lives often involves adding beneficial behaviors to our schedule, or subtracting behaviors that no longer serve us well.

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Implementation intentions are the missing link that allows us to

  1. Take our desire and form “if-then” plans around them
  2. Blast through obstacles when they show up in our “take action” process
  3. Recognize the cues that lead to our bad behaviors
  4. Respond to those behaviors automatically and seamlessly move toward a more desired behavior with ease.

On a more positive note, setting intentions for how to implement action toward your goal allows our brains to see and respond to opportunities to achieve that goal faster and more efficiently.

Read more about implementation intentions here

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READ MY ARTICLE: How to Get Automatic Results with Implementation Intentions

Clarity of Purpose

Setting intentions can sometimes take on the aura of being an unnecessary mental step, which is so far from the truth that it’s almost laughable.

For our brains, setting an intention for how what you want to achieve (big or small) and how to plan to achieve it, serves as a “subtle plan” inside our heads that we should see as a form of preparation.

We all know what preparation does right? Preparation, here, is synonymous with practice. Are we more likely to achieve our goals with practice or less likely?

Definitely, more likely!

Clarity of purpose could be rephrased as “definiteness of purpose” which is a term coined by Napoleon Hill in his primer THINK AND GROW RICH (get it here if you haven’t read it yet), to define our crystal clear aim in life and our utter devotion to attaining it.

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The term clarity of purpose that I’m using here is a chapter inside the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Gary Mckeown (grab it here).

Mr. Gary actually says in this part of the book that

“When there is a serious lack of clarity about what a team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity, on the other hand, people thrive.” p 121

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He also goes on to say that lack of clarity drains us of our own energy that we could put into moving forward.

When we have clarity surrounding our intentions, we are able to focus on activities that move us toward our goals, and the clearer the better.

Having clarity while setting intentions takes your wish (to stop smoking, have a positive daily experience, etc…) to

  1. Stop smoking by a certain date, to increase your health, longevity, and self-reliance
  2. Have a positive daily experience, where you feel productive, appreciated, disciplined and worth of the recognition of your peers, at work, and in public.

With no clarity, we are confused, distracted and disorganized.

When setting intentions, make sure you are crystal clear about everything you want in the picture. This allows you to eliminate everything not related to your goal, and embrace all that is.

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Ways to Set Powerful Intentions

Setting intentions for your life involves three parts.

  1. A wish, dream, desire, or a “this would be nice to have, or be like”
  2. Clear, distinct and vivid mental visualization  of the end result
  3. A plan of attack, or a way to implement a strategy that will propel you toward your goal

Setting Intentions Example:

Let’s imagine that you have a goal, desire, or wish: Insert it here _________

Now we can imagine what that would look like. Personally, I create a mental outline of a box in my mind and go from there. Visualizing is simple when you do it in small parts.

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Setting Intentions: Part One, Mental Imagery

Slowly I make the image clearer, with vivid colors, and sounds that I or my environment makes in the image.

  1. If your goal is to quit smoking, you might visualize having a conversation with someone about how you haven’t had a cigarette in years, and how they could achieve the same result as you did!
  2. Or maybe you want to build muscle, and you imagine yourself in the gym lifting a weight that is far beyond your current reach.
  3. If you’ve always wanted to be a concert pianist, you can visualize yourself tearing up at your first standing ovation.

setting intentions

Setting Intentions: Part Two, Clarity of Purpose

The easiest way to cover all your bases with this is to make a mission statement for yourself. To do this successfully, you might even want to pretend you actually ARE on a mission.

The components of your mission statement will be a phrase that you’ve heard me say over and over again: “all the nouns”

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. Where
  4. Why
  5. When

In other words:

  1. What are you going to be doing? What do you plan to achieve, implement, or change?
  2. When are you going to do it? For how long? And what are your start and end times?
  3. Where will you do it? What environment is better suited for your success? And where should you stay away from? (less smoking, means sit in the non-smoking section)
  4. Who are you doing it with? Do you have a partner? Who do you need to avoid? Who should you talk to when you need reassurance or companionship?
  5. And lastly, why are you doing it? This is where you take all your excuses and checkmate them. Random activity = lack of motivation AND purpose-driven activity = success!

For the why aspect of your mission statement, are you doing it for your health? Are you doing it to make more money? Are you doing it to have more time to spend with your kids?

The key for an unstoppable why is to find something that motivates you, and attach it (even loosely if necessary) to something that really ignites your insides.

Example Mission Statement (setting intentions):

What: I am going to quit smoking

When: Starting tomorrow, and continue on until I no longer have a psychological addiction and have overcome all the negative effects of my physical addiction.

Where:I will do this everywhere (obviously) and I am going to make a sincere effort to stay away from bars, the smoking section of my favorite restaurants, certain subways that allow smoking.

Who: I know that I will have to request my friends not smoke around me, or not hang out with them, this is for my health. I am going to avoid the break rooms at work because everyone smokes there.

I am setting an intention to interact with those who not only support me but have also defeated this addiction themselves so that I have positive encouragement and coaching to strengthen my resolve.


Why: I am doing this because last night my wife approached me and said that my daughter was crying about how “daddy is going to die if he keeps smoking and that will make me very sad”.

I’m not able to swim anymore because my lungs are in poor shape, and I used to swim every day in college. Something needs to be done and I’m sick of it.

In this mission statement, there is much more clarity of purpose than in “I’m going to quit smoking”.

Without clarity, while setting intentions, you’re basically saying “maybe, I guess, hopefully”, which is just not good enough.

Setting Intentions: Part Three, Implementation Intention Plan

Using your implementation intention, you will do two things

  1. Avoid bad habits
  2. Notice opportunities to reach your goals faster, move towards that goal when the opportunity arises, and do so automatically

Implementation Plan: Avoiding Bad Behavior

  1. When I see a cigarette, I will immediately leave the area, get some water and breathe slowly for five minutes until the craving subsides
  2. When I’m am seated for dinner, I will immediately request the non-smoking section

Implementation plan: Embracing Opportunities

  1. If I see a story about how someone beat smoking, I will read it as soon as I see it to strengthen my resolve.
  2. When there is a chance for a support group meeting, I will schedule myself as an attendee

Setting Intentions: Things to Remember

Visualization and mental imagery pre-prepares you for what’s to come and, like an athlete, causes you to perform better during that circumstance.

Setting goal intentions is only responsible for twenty-eight percent variance in goal achievement. Most of the time, it’s not enough. Embrace an implementation intention as well for increased odds.

Make what you intend to accomplish as detailed in your mind as possible. When you know what success looks like, you can move toward it, whereas, nobody can move towards a picture with nothing on it. Where does that lead? Nowhere.

The example given above was to quit smoking, but it setting intentions is a technique that you can use for everything from having a good day at work, to how you will interact with others upon meeting them, or changing the world. Seriously.

Take care of yourself.

Are you ready to increase your odds by setting powerful intentions?


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Brian Wright

I read a lot of books. I learn from a lot of experts. I learn stuff and package it all up for you.

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