Setting Goals Isn’t Enough: Intentions and Leading Indicators are Critical

80 per cent of new year’s resolutions fail by February.

There are numerous reasons why people give up before they’ve really got going, one of which is a lack of short-term results.

But goals worth pursuing usually take time to achieve.

It can take months for us to generate real results.

Therefore, it’s critical that we learn how to play the long game.

But how?

We are all susceptible to the optimism bias going into a goal, but our negativity bias can quickly kick in if we’re not seeing immediate results.

If I want to get in shape and I’m not seeing results after several weeks of slogging away in the gym, how do I stay motivated?

If I’m looking to find a romantic partner, but after countless hours spent on mind-numbing dating apps, a half-dozen lousy dates, and a handful of rejections, how do I not throw in the towel?

If I’m wanting to double my company’s revenue this year, but after three months we’re on par with where we were last year, how do I continue believing that this goal is attainable?

Systems Aren’t Enough — Set Intentions Too

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has spoken at length on the power of systems.

We rise or fall to the level of our systems, not to the level of our goals.

For example, if I’m trying to lose weight, the system could include finding a personal trainer, paying for and scheduling several workouts a week, and having an accountability partner.

But still, I might not see results for months, even with systems in place. Clear himself says that results are a lagging indicator of our habits.

This is where intentions come into play.

Former monk turned author and positive psychology instructor, Cory Muscara, defines intentions as internal commitments that are process-oriented and help us enjoy the journey towards our goal.

Intentions create the space for internal wins that others might not be able to see or measure yet, but that you feel and reward yourself for psychologically.

My 2023 Goals

This year, instead of a laundry list of micro-goals — which is how I usually go into a new year, I only have three macro, or even, meta life goals.

They focus on three huge questions.

  1. Who to be with: find a prospective life partner.
  2. What to do: sell my company to a large consulting firm.
  3. Where to live: move to the beach.

If you believe you can do something, and you put in consistent effort in the right direction — or learn to pivot towards the right direction over time, eventually probability will favor you.

Sure, I’ve created systems that include weekly tasks and reflections that increase the likelihood of my reaching these goals.

But this isn’t enough.

Something like finding a prospective life partner isn’t entirely in my control.

I could be incredibly lucky and it could take weeks, but if history is any guide, it could take a lot longer than that.

My Intentions

So it’s critical that I set intentions that keep me present — intentions that help me completely embrace and accept being who I am today while working towards becoming someone else tomorrow.

Below are just some of my intentions, mapped to my goals, that will help me to both play the long game and enjoy playing it.

Of course, as you go about your journey towards your goals, you might become cognizant of behaviors and thought patterns that don’t serve you.

In that case, it’s imperative that you define additional intentions to counter the negative, self-defeating thought patterns.

Set Leading Indicators

Finally, once you’ve set your intentions, you can augment them with leading indicators.

This is a tool used in the tech startup world to both tell us that we’re on the right path and motivate the troops. If a sales rep is booking many meetings with the right target audience, this is a leading indicator of prospective future sales. Failure to do this is not a positive indicator.

A leading indicator is simply a predictor of a positive future result.

For example, leading indicators on the way to finding a romantic partner could include:

  • Dating app matches
  • Phone numbers acquired
  • People connected with on social media
  • Communication had
  • First dates booked
  • Second dates booked
  • Levels of intimacy experienced

This can be used to indicate that you are on the right track, and should keep doing what you’re doing because it seems to be working.

Final Thoughts

Whatever the case, be kind to yourself while working towards your goals this year.

Goals are great — they can give us a sense of purpose and a reason to jump out of bed in the morning with a spring in our step, but they can also implicitly tell us that we’re not enough until we reach said goal.

This kind of thinking is toxic, and won’t give you the best chance of reaching your goals.

Accept who you are today, enjoy the ride, focus on what you can control, and do your best. That’s all you can do.

Steve Glaveski is the founder of innovation accelerator Collective Campus, and author of Time Rich , host of the Future Squared podcast, and frequently contributes to Harvard Business Review. Find him on Twitter at @steveglaveski.