Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

Intentional Holidays: How to Build a Connected Intention

[This is from a talk I gave earlier this week for Eating Disorders Round Table, so it is longer than my usual articles.]

I have two issues with New Year’s resolutions: the first is that it has become tradition for New Year’s resolutions to be about being “healthier” in some respect. And being “healthier” is usually code for “losing weight.” This is a time of year when people become even more focused on their bodies as problematic and in need of alteration. This focus is harmful in and of itself, and it generally sets people up to look for a quick fix to this horrible problem of their body.

Which leads us to issue #2. New Year’s resolutions are generally made without much preparation for long-term follow-through. We don’t put enough thought into how we will deal with challenges like boredom, forgetfulness, and temptations. When we don’t put serious thought into how challenges will be managed, it should not be shocking when follow through wanes after the first few weeks. But instead of expecting it, we end up feeling guilty, embarrassed, and sometimes even ashamed that we “failed.” I don’t like this annual holiday tradition of setting people up to feel like they’ve failed. (Just to drive the point home, 80% of New Year’s resolutions “fail.” Most fail by the 2nd Saturday of January.)

If there is something you want to shift about yourself or your life, an alternative to the New Year’s resolution is a connected intention. Intentions and resolutions are similar, of course. There are at least two important differences. First, a connected intention can be made any time. You might make a connected intention on December 15th or February 4th. It depends on when you feel motivated and ready, not on the calendar. This is very relevant for follow-through.

Another difference lies in their definitions. Resolution is about resolve and determination. Will-power. It’s got more of a “Just do  it” attitude. Intention means “import” and “significance.” The word “intend” is defined as “to direct the mind on” by Merriam-Webster.  An intention involves deliberately directing the mind to that which is important to you. New Year’s resolutions, on the other hand, tend to be based on reactions to “bad” behavior (usually eating).

The term “connected intention” highlights both the connection to what you find most important in life and your ongoing connection to the intention. Being connected to what is meaningful to us is what makes us feel good at a soul level. Being connected to what is valuable is what makes life feel most vibrant. It feels fulfilling. It’s often what makes pain worth tolerating. This is important to really understand. If you connect with what is most important to you in life, if you make choices that align with what is most important to you, there is a deep, rich sense that feels like purpose or connection or fulfillment or engagement. It is staying connected to your true north.

The “connected” part of connected intention is why it is sustainable. It is not easy to follow through on an intention for an extended period of time. It requires ongoing commitment and focus and effort. Anyone can commit and focus and effort for a little while. But to do it long-term is a different story.

Being connected to values gives an intention it’s longevity. Grit, or the characteristic of persevering even through challenging circumstances, comes from feeling connected to and engaged with life. It comes from feeling connected to passion and purpose, to a higher goal. Connection and engagement generate grit, much more than a ‘just do it” attitude of mental toughness. This is key.

When you are connected to a purpose or value, you see beyond this present moment. You see many more opportunities for connection in the future. This is very important for grit and sustainability. If you don’t follow through with your intention in this moment, it is not experienced as a failure because you know there will be more opportunities. So you don’t give up. You don’t beat yourself down. You are ready for the next opportunity.

With a New Year’s resolution, we typically see each day as an opportunity to “succeed” or to “fail” at the resolution. This is because it is not connected to a deeper meaning, a higher purpose. It is typically about something you want right now – relief from the consequences of that “bad behavior.” This is problematic because, as I’ve said, it gives you an opportunity to feel like a failure every day, which is quite demotivating. Having an intention based on a value keeps you focused on the long game.

By the way, values don’t have to reflect the choices you are currently making. You can hold Self-compassion as a value and have trouble feeling compassion toward yourself. You can hold Adventure as a value and still be too nervous to go on any. Values are what is important to you, whether you are currently living in alignment with them or not. It is hard to stay in alignment. That’s why we have to make intentions.

We don’t often take the time to really think about what is most meaningful and fulfilling to us in life. And if we do know that, we don’t make the effort to prioritize those values. It is work to stay connected to your connected intentions. That is where the need for grit comes in.

So here is where we start to build our connected intentions. Yours may be related to the holiday season, or not. They may be about tolerating family, being kind to yourself in the face of “temptation,” or connecting to gratitude. Start by thinking about what you want to shift in your life right now. We’re going to start by identifying some of your core values so that you can build intentions with solid foundations.

Here are a few examples of values: Family, Loved, Loving, Adventure, Authenticity, Curiosity, Appreciation, Social Justice, Openness, Humor, Self-acceptance, Knowledge, Risk, Spirituality, Assertiveness, Flexibility, Fun, Creativity, Inner Peace, Competence, Popularity, Autonomy, Ecology, Growth, Honesty, Hard-working, Wealth, Self-control.

Let’s start by seeing which values show up in your everyday life. Think about your day yesterday. Take a couple of minutes to remember all of the things you did and thought about from the time you woke up to the time you went to sleep. Now, what did you spend a lot of time thinking about? What did you spend a lot of time doing? What did you do that was hard for you? The answers to these questions can point to what you value. What did you do that was meaningful to you yesterday? It might be a big thing or a small decision.

If you are not entirely clear about what is most meaningful to you, here are three questions that help people start to identify their values. Write down your answers.

  1. What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? What do you want people to think of when they think of you and how you lived your life?
  2. If you were given $1,000,000, what would you do with it? Portion out every cent of that money as if no one will ever know what you did with it.
  3. What lights you up? What is worth enduring big discomfort for?

The answers reflect what you value. Once you’ve answered, take another minute to clarify, circle, or identify the values that show up in your responses or that resonate from the examples I gave you. Choose one to build a connected intention around.

Think about how you can connect your life to that value in a meaningful way. Think about what you want to do to promote that value in your life on a regular basis. Word that into an intention: “I intend to (insert intention here).” In building this intention, be as specific as you can, and be realistic. If you have a difficult time meditating for 3 minutes ever, don’t set an intention to meditate for 40 minutes 5x/week. That’s specific, but not realistic. Being realistic involves starting where you are and taking small steps to get to where you want to go. Set a realistic intention, and once that becomes easy to follow through with, replace it with one that is a bit more challenging. Being specific involves addressing how often and when and where you plan to do your intention.

Take care to word your intention about what you will do, not what you won’t do. In other words, avoid intentions that use the word “not,” such as, “I will not count calories today” or “I will not eat dessert today.” It is much more effective to say what you will do – this makes the intention actionable. In your wording, make it as clear as possible what actions you are asking yourself to take.

If you have chosen the value of Self-compassion, your connected intention might be: When I am feeling pain or am in a struggle, I will practice being empathic to myself about it rather than judging myself for it. If your value is Flexibility, you could intend to a) notice when you are being rigid and b) ask yourself if it feels worth it to loosen up a bit in that moment. Or you might intend to accept all social invitations for a month. Or you might intend to eat one food that is outside of your comfort zone every day, if you are rigid about food variety.

Focusing on what you will do instead of what you won’t do not only makes the intention actionable, it also keeps your focus in a helpful place. When you intend not to do something, you are setting yourself up to think about that thing every time you connect with your intention. This is very unhelpful. The intention,“I will not have chocolate today” requires you to think about chocolate every time you think about your intention. And that naturally increases your thoughts about chocolate, which will probably increase your desire for it. Whatever you focus on, you will start to think about more. Keep your focus in helpful places.

So to create the connected intention, the first step is to identify a value that is meaningful to you right now in your life. Be clear about separating your authentic value from what society, media, family, etc. tell you is important. It’s got to reflect how you feel about life when no one’s looking, or it won’t actually feel fulfilling and motivate you to keep connecting to it. Next, figure out how you want to engage with that value in your life. Then put that into words, using realistic, specific terms about what you will do.

Once you know what your connected intention is, you have to stay connected to it. That brings us to the final step: preparation and planning. Plan for the large and small ways that you can support your intention in an ongoing way. Start by asking: How are you going to remember this intention every day? Plan for a mindful reminder about it at the beginning of the day. You also need reminders throughout the day. And it is helpful to have a quick debriefing with yourself toward the end of your day. Not to assign blame if you forgot about your intention or didn’t make the “right” choices, but to have some accountability and a place to identify and strategize about obstacles. If you didn’t remember to do it for 4 days in a row, memory has become an obstacle and you need to try a new strategy.

Plan for the logistics of how and when these check-ins will happen. Take this step seriously – it will keep the intention going. The first question is, how will you do the beginning-of-the-day reminder about the intention? Decide whether you will write about it or think about it. Then pick a specific time you will do this, or link it with a daily activity, like brushing your teeth.

My general practice is to write down my daily intentions in the morning after I meditate. If you have a morning journal practice, this could be a good time. If not, you could decide to write intention(s) at 8 am each day, in the green chair in the living room, using a notebook that you will keep in a specific place. Or perhaps you plan to do it when you first get to work, before you dive in. If you are more of a thinker than writer, you might designate the shower as the time to think about it. Or your commute to work. If you meditate or pray, you might include your intention as a part of that time. The goal here is to take at least a few minutes to remind yourself of your connected intention(s) and why it’s important, and ideally, to think about how to follow through with the intention given what’s coming up in your day.

The next question is: How will you keep your intention in mind throughout the day? Here are some suggestions: Set several reminders on your phone. Make it the wallpaper of your computer or phone screen. Make it a password you have to type each day. Write it on a sticky note and stick it near wherever you are during the day. Put one in your car and a few in your home as well. Plan to listen to a podcast or TED talk related to your intention during your lunch or commutes. Some people wear a piece of jewelry that they associate with their intention. Others carry a stone or other object in their pocket that is associated with their intention. Again, be realistic. Focus on what will work for you. And consider changing it up in some way every two or three weeks in case you’ve gotten so used to it that you don’t notice it anymore.

Also decide when you will have your nightly de-brief. For example, while brushing your teeth or while changing into your pjs, or writing about it when you first get into bed. Remember not to judge yourself during the de-brief. Berating or judging yourself for not doing it well enough is going to make it less likely that you will continue to de-brief. It will also make it less likely that you will continue to work on the intention.

I can’t stress how important these steps are in actually following through with your connected intention on a regular basis. There is no secret password or magic code. You have to stay connected to your intention, and you have to be willing to put in the effort to get the intended result. It can be hard, and tedious. And some days,  you will completely forget, or choose not to focus on it. Sometimes you might feel like you just need a break from all of the mental work. Totally fine. Give yourself the break so that you want to get back into your connected intention.

Because it requires effort and can be hard and tedious, it is important to tend to motivation. One of the most effective ways to stay motivated is to change up what’s not working or is getting stale. Another is to stay connected to the feeling you get when you follow through on your intention. Whenever you are thinking or writing about your intention, take time to connect to that feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you book that solo trip to Iceland in the name of adventure. When you are kind to yourself and sympathize with your struggle around food. When you choose not to reflexively say “sorry” when someone bumps into you. It’s the feeling of you connecting with something meaningful, the stuff that fortifies your soul. That feeling will help motivate you, much more than just thinking about your value will.

Not all of the feelings associated with this process are motivating and wonderful, of course. Tere are also de-motivating feelings, and we have to make room for those too, if we are going to stay on track with our connected intention. There is almost nothing in this world that has only “good” experiences associated with it. If we want to have the good, we also get some hard experiences. The more room we make for the hard parts, the less they will throw us off course.

For example, it takes sustained commitment and focus and effort to follow through on an intention for an extended period of time; this is hard in and of itself. The more you expect those experiences, the less discouraging they will be. And, there will be plenty of times when you give your commitment, focus, and effort, and you don’t feel rewarded for it. Some days, there are not lots of opportunities to align with our value in a significant way, so we don’t get lots of those good feelings that I was just talking about. If you are focusing on the short-term, it can feel like you are putting in effort and not getting much back. It can feel unrewarding and boring. Be ready for that. Be willing to have those de-motivating experiences. Those experiences come with a sustained intention; they can’t be avoided. And they are worth having.

It is challenging for anyone to sustain focus on something that is not constantly rewarding. We have to remind ourselves why it is worth it. We have to remind ourselves of the feeling it gives us – that feeling is a big part of how we know that it’s meaningful to us. We have to be clear about the long-term benefit of intentionally connecting to our value. If you can remind yourself why this is meaningful to you, and if you accept and prepare for the de-motivating moments and other obstacles, you are much, much more likely to stick with your connected intention. This is a necessary part of the preparation process.

Pay attention to your expectations about your intentions – these can be obstacles. For example, don’t expect to do intentions perfectly. This sets you up to feel disappointed or like a failure with each missed opportunity. Which will happen, because it is not possible to do intentions perfectly. Also, you don’t have to do them perfectly for them to “work.” If you expect to follow through perfectly, or if you expect that each day you follow through with your intentions will feel magical and sparkly, you may be disappointed enough to just chuck the whole thing.

Let me put in a quick plug here for self-compassion over self-flagellation. For anyone who tends to berate themselves when they don’t do things perfectly, pay attention to how you feel when you berate yourself. Genuinely ready to try again? Probably not. It comes naturally to be mean to ourselves when we “mess up,” but it is not helpful. Research shows that it is actually more motivating to be kind to ourselves.

Another obstacle can be the presence of a “quick fix.” It is tempting to choose the thing that will make you feel better right now over the long-term, sustainable intention. For example, it is easy to choose to sleep in instead of getting up early to meditate and write my daily intentions. Be willing to do the hard stuff in order to have the meaningful stuff – this is crucial to the sustainability aspect of the connected intention. You have to be prepared for the lure of the quick fix and make room for it. And then make a plan.

Once you’ve identified de-motivating moments and other obstacles to staying on track, prepare for them ahead of time. Make a plan, and practice. If there is a particular person who makes it hard to stick to intentions around assertiveness, think about and rehearse ahead of time how you would like to handle interactions with that person. How would you ideally like to respond to that person, staying in alignment with your values? Practice what you would say, in the tone you would say it. This will help with follow through.

If you get bored easily, prepare for how you will sustain focus on your intentions. It might be wise to plan to focus on the intentions for 3 weeks and then take a week break, and then bring the focus in again. Or get creative about how you can be in alignment with your intention. Have different options to choose from. You can connect with the intention by doing things like: meditating on it while you take a walk; creating art around it (write a poem, make a collage, paint a painting); talking about it with a friend; brainstorming a list of actions you can take to support it. Do something different each week or each day to keep it interesting.

Having a connected intention is about changing your experience of life. Each time you follow through with your intention, you change your experience of that moment. Sometimes, a shift in just one moment can have a profound impact on your experience of life. Most times, it takes multiple moments to generate larger changes.

Here are some examples of what has happened for me when I’ve made intentions around specific values, to give you a sense of how it can change things. I often practice daily connected intentions by asking myself, “How do I want to show up today?” When I focus on showing up with gratitude, I have more patience. On these days, I am definitely able to choose “compassion” over “losing it” more often when my 3-year-old hits his tantrumming stride. When I focus on showing up with authenticity, I am often bolder than usual in my choices, and as a result I make more authentic connections. Some days I challenge myself to go with the flow – very much not my natural state. On those days, I find my thoughts and focus staying in the present more often. More of my choices become based on “what is” instead of “what might be.” These are very valuable, meaningful experiences that shape my experience of myself and my life.

Here are some connected intentions that might be relevant for anyone struggling in their relationship with their body or with food during the holiday season, or any time of year:

If self-love is the value, you might intend to eat enough food throughout the day to give you the energy to genuinely connect to and do the things you love to do. Or, you might choose to practice loving yourself regardless of the food choices you made and regardless of how you see your body.

If you have core value of Adventure, you could intend to prioritize going on adventures over any self-imposed food, exercise, or appearance rules you have. I know plenty of people who won’t travel to have an adventure because they would have to change their eating for a period of time. I know plenty of people who won’t try any sport that requires a bathing suit or even shorts until they lose weight. You could actually insert just about any value here: prioritize any other value over self-imposed food, exercise, or appearance rules. See how your life looks through the lens of this value.

Connected intentions are one path to changing your experience of yourself and your life. I’ve given you some tools to help you create and stay connected to your connected intention. There is no “right” way to do this. Ultimately, it comes down to: What does it take for you to stay connected on a regular basis to what is truly meaningful to you? You will probably need to experiment with different methods and strategies. You will definitely need to make room for discomfort. Don’t let any of that throw you. It’s worth it.

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