Goals and Intentions Aren’t the Same—Here’s When to Use Each for Optimum Success and Happiness

Photo: Getty Images/Ryan J Lane
It’s that time of year again, when you go-getters are bullet-journaling, clipping magazines to craft vision boards, and doing whatever other practice you contend helps you map out how to achieve your goals in the New Year. But, even with a productive, well-meaning eye on the prize, there's still room to optimize this practice, and it has to do with understanding the key differences between goals and intentions.

Is one better, more important, or more effective than another? Below, a couple of experts break down the details to help ensure that you start your year in the most prepared and inspired headspace possible. Keep reading to learn the difference between a goal and an intention, how both valuable practices can work in tandem, and tips to set you up for across-the-board success.

The difference between goals and intentions

A goal is concrete, tangible, and specific—something you can check off a list, says Megan E. Johnson, PhD. Goals can also have a deadline, or specific date set for having achieved a desired outcome. Some examples? Saving a certain amount of money, landing a new job, moving to a new city, or taking a trip.

While goals are static, intentions have a softer energy to them and will ebb and flow as you grow as a person.

Intentions, on the other hand, are “aspirational, value-based characteristics that you strive to exemplify,” says Dr. Johnson. They are more internal ways of being that you embody in the present moment versus things you feel you have to do. While goals are static, intentions have a softer energy to them and will ebb and flow as you grow as a person. For example, you can intend to be more present with your family or open yourself up to receive abundance, while you simultaneously have a goal of visiting your family three times this year and getting a raise at work.

Another difference between goals and intentions is that the causal relationship between the two isn't bidirectional. That is, you can set intentions all day, every day without them being attached to any particular goals. But, in order to hit a goal, you definitely need to have certain intentions that support you in achieving said goal.

How to achieve your goals with the help of supportive intentions

As noted, goals and intentions can certainly work together, and both are valuable in helping to keep you aligned with your values and move you closer to achieving what you want.

To demonstrate the potential synergistic magic goals and intentions possess when they work together, first set a specific goal, says Monica Berg, author, speaker and chief communications officer of The Kabbalah Centre. Let’s say your goal is to run a marathon. After identifying that, Berg says, ask yourself "who do I need to be in order to achieve this goal?" This will help you tap into the energy of intention. To run a marathon, for example, you’d need intentions such as strength, positivity, and dedication to become your daily signposts to support you in achieving the goal.

4 tips for setting actionable goals supported by intentions

1. Identify your 'why'

Before you actually set any goals or intentions, first identify why you want to achieve them and how your life may be better as a result. “Any type of change is hard, and this 'why' is something you can hang on to when things get challenging,” Dr. Johnson says. In other words, the 'why' is your fuel, and it will ensure you’re setting a goal because it’s something you truly want to achieve not just something you think you should.

2. Get clear on what you don’t want

If you’re not sure exactly which goals or intentions to set, it can be helpful to reverse engineer the process and first get clear on what you don’t want to experience moving forward. “It can sometimes be overwhelming to think of what it is that we want, but if asked what we do not want, suddenly it all becomes very clear,” Berg says, adding that preparing for growth also requires you to release what isn’t working or serving you.

3. Focus on baby steps

While setting big, dramatic goals is great in theory, they can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming. Feeling overwhelmed can, in turn, stifle action toward completion, defeating the entire purpose. That’s why Berg suggests focusing on small, specific actions you can take daily that support your goal or intention.

For example, a goal to “be in the best shape and health of my life” feels huge and daunting, whereas “consume less processed sugar” and “hit up a yoga class three times a week” may be more manageable and, thus, set you up for success. “These types of [small] changes leave room for flexibility and because we’re much more likely to accomplish them daily, we’ll be feeling successful consistently,” Berg says.

4. Make them 'SMART'

Once you’ve nailed down your goal, Dr. Johnson recommends turning it into a SMART goal, which means a goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This practice can shield you from drafting vague goals that are difficult to see through.

Again, a goal like “be healthier” is vague (but can work well as a general daily intention), which is why specificity is key. Then, determine what metrics you will use to measure and track your progress. Maybe that means running a certain number of miles per week or meditating a number of minutes per day. Making a goal achievable, Dr. Johnson says, simply means you’re keeping it realistic and anticipating any roadblocks while still stretching yourself. "Relevant" ensures the goal is meaningful to you, and getting a timeline locked down means you've established when you aim to achieve the goal and what you’ll need to do on a daily basis in order make that happen. And, armed with this goal-achieving, intention-setting intel, you're set to have the most personally impactful year ever.

Now that you're clear on how to achieve your goals, let's focus on relaxing. Here's how you do it best, according to your Myers-Briggs personality. And here's are some mindful ways to unwind if sound baths aren't your thing.

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