Goals or Intentions…. Which works for you?

Goals or Intentions

John Campbell


For at least the last 50 years we have been obsessed with goals – setting them and achieving them. And yet the evidence is that the whole idea of goals turns off roughly half the population. For goal fanatics this is heresy, and a sign of weak and ineffectual people.


Nothing could be further from the truth. The focus on goals does work for some and so I wont berate advocates as a means of balancing up the argument. What I seek is an acceptance that goals work for many and that different language, motivations and actions work for others.


So let us explore goals a little more. The hypothesis is that if we can express what we desire in ways that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time related (SMART) then we convert what would otherwise be at best a wish and fuzzy or at worst a delusion into something that is doable and we know when we have achieved it. It no longer remains work in progress and it gets a tick on the journey of life’s ticks. I guess in some environments that ideal is the most sensible way to approach what you are doing. I love Matthew Pinsent and Stephen Redgrave’s approach to winning successive Olympic gold medals. Their process was to decide they wanted to win at the next Olympics and then to work out the likely winning time and deduct a bit just to make sure. Their goal then became to complete their race on Olympic finals day at the forecast (better than winning) time. From there they could work out a training plan working backwards from finals day that said what times they should be doing by which date. A plan was then created which, all things being equal, should result in a gold medal. Seems to work and hard to fault it as a process.


But I want to offer a different process which is totally internally driven. Several years ago I had this idea that it would be fun to ride an off road motorbike round Namibia: no particular reason, it just sounded like a great adventure. I talked to a mate and we both encouraged each other in the thought that it would be fun. A bit like an itch you cant get rid of, the idea gnawed at us until eventually we said – we are going to have to do this, not just talk about it.

At this point we then had to plan bikes, safety, routes and our own preparation. None of it was done with “this must be done by then and this is how we will know it is done” thinking. It was much more intuitive, tempered with some practical experience. (No point in booking flights unless you know you can hire bikes). The result was that we rode over 3000kms off road around the north of the country, rode some classic challenging stretches and met some amazing people. We also funded an amazing charity in a remote part of the country helping young people acquire work skills that would enhance their lives. None of these results could be described as goals, they just happened out of an intention, an itch that became irresistible.


Two different scenarios and two different approaches. I am tempted to say that the Olympic example is one where there was an externally defined definition of success, whereas the Namibia example is one where success was internally defined.


So let us take two people approaching changing their lifestyle and level of fitness. One might define their success through setting and reaching specific goals in a specified period. The other might have a more general ‘itch’ that says “I want to rediscover my body” or “I want to have a go at….” Both are ok, both are laudable and right for different people. So, talking of goals may switch some people off – doesn’t mean they are inadequates. It just means that the expression of intent is the wrong one and is too restrictive. Allowing the person to describe a direction of travel rather than a specific outcome may be more motivating. And for many this is also a less stressful way of stretching into something new or different.


One way of telling which is the approach for you is to be aware that the way you look at progress is different. Working towards goals we are informed and driven by measurement. We are always concerned with “how am I doing towards meeting my goal and the specific evidence that tells me what I have achieved (or not)?” Working with intention we spend time noticing how we are doing and how we feel about it. While that may sound woolly I would argue that it is more systemic than that. Let me make that clearer. Noticing that you are one step closer to your intention or reminding yourself you are awesome when you add another km onto your run…. even if there’s no pressure to go any further but just noticing you are and acknowledging your achievement and how that makes you feel. It doesn’t give you specific performance data but may well be more motivational in continuing to stretch and enjoy what you do.


Goals or intentions? You decide what is right for you.


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I like to think that John’s words on Goals and Intentions connect well with my clients both in the work I do with them and the effort they make outside of our sessions.


Essentially, everybody is different and there is no one fits all. Success comes in many shapes and forms and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily fit well with another.


John and I have spent many long phone calls discussing what is the right way or most effective way of getting people to where they want to be and he hit the nail on the head with this little post. There isn’t necessarily one way of doing things. Finally, all our ramblings are down onto paper (or virtual paper) where others can make sense of them too.

Happy Goal setting and Intention making 🙂

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John is our guest blog writer sharing some wisdom with you today!
John is a business coach based in the north of England. You can find more information on him and his work here:



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