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Health & Wellness

Set Intentions Instead of Resolutions

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We’ve all made enough New Year’s resolutions over our lifetimes to know they seldom last long.

We’ve all made enough New Year’s resolutions over our lifetimes to know they seldom last long.

But this doesn’t mean we need to give up on our commitment to change our behavior in 2018 in ways that will make our lives healthier and more satisfying.

There may be a better way to make changes stick. And that’s by setting intentions rather than making resolutions.

Resolutions are about reaching goals, whether that’s losing ten pounds, cutting sweets out of your diet, getting to yoga class three times a week or clearing the clutter from your closets.

Intentions, on the other hand, are about something larger—purpose and values. Hugh Byrne, Ph.D., is the cofounder of the Mindfulness Training Institute of Washington, D.C., and author of The Here and Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits Once and for All. “I think of intention as the inner compass that sets us on our journey,” he says. “Without clear intentions we drift, acting out old habits and patterns, like flotsam swept by the water.” 

Tina Chadda, M.D., a Toronto psychiatrist and wellness coach, says that identifying our intentions is “how we address the question, ‘what the heck are we doing with ourselves all day?’” Put another way, while resolutions are future-focused, intentions are about how we want to show up in the present.

“For me, I value my well-being and sense of serenity,” Dr. Chadda says, “and that translates into the goal that by the end of next weekend, I’m going to unpack the boxes in the corner of my office.”

“Switching your perspective from resolutions to thoughtful intentions may be the key,” says social psychologist Elliot Berkman, Ph.D.

Dr. Berkman is the director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oregon. He leads a team that’s studying a field called “motivational neuroscience.” Using brain-imaging technology they’ve discovered that when people are thinking about core values, the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain, along with other regions, light up. This sends a signal that what you’re doing right now is the most important thing to you. And, that, in turn, may make even difficult tasks seem effortless.

The trick to recruiting this brainpower is to turn extrinsic goals—something you pursue because of outside pressure—into intrinsic goals. That means you’re motivated by your own passions and satisfaction.

Say, for example, your doctor has advised you to lose weight to lower your risk of diabetes. You set a resolution to drop 20 pounds. Feels like drudgery, right?

Now flip that to an intention that aligns with your deepest values. “I want to be a healthy and active grandparent” or “I want to experience life with energy and vigor.”  Dr. Berkman calls this “connecting to the why.”

To tap into your intentions, Dr. Byrne suggests devoting some quiet time to exploring what matters most to you. Ask yourself questions like, “What’s my deepest longing for myself and the world?” Next, identify habits that prevent you from living out these intentions. Commit to taking actions to change those habits.

You can begin with what Mallika Chopra, author of Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy calls “microintents.” These are small steps that may make our day-to-day lives happier and healthier and could bring clarity to long-term intentions.

Think about your desire to play on the beach with your grandkids; and you might well find the motivation to talk a walk after lunch instead of sinking into the sofa and watching TV. “When you’re behaving in ways that are consistent with who you want to be,” says Dr. Berkman, “it will feel good and be evident to you. That’s powerful reinforcement.” Dr. Chadda agrees: ““When you’re using your energy in a healthy way, you feel energized. When you’re not, you feel depleted and empty.”

So visualize your best future self, and let’s set some intentions for 2018!

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