On Goals and Intentions

This morning, I sat down at the kitchen island and drafted up some notes of reflection. I’ve thought a lot about how I’ve spent my creative focus during previous decades (drawing, playing music, learning computer programming), and the various ways I’ve chosen to pass the time: video games, board games, listening to records, watching movies, etc.

Awhile ago, I made a conscious decision to set the focus for this blog to be about topics pertaining to my professional career. In some ways, that’s been great, because focus in in part what I require. In others, it’s left me feeling like I haven’t given myself a true outlet to talk about dreams and goals that may not have much bearing on my professional self, but which carry a lot of weight around who I am and what I want out of this life. I don’t write enough from either perspective to bother making the distinction, so for today at least, it makes sense to just jot down what I feel for the purpose of writing at all.

I had a great conversation with my friend Michelle last week about goal-setting. I mentioned how it was mid-January, and I hadn’t yet written any posts to reflect upon my goals from last year. I felt in some ways that I’d accomplished a lot in 2019, but that things quickly got off course in June after I started leading a huge client project at work and signed up to give more and more unique presentations at WordCamps and internal continuous education sessions.

Michelle told me that she prefers not to set goals, but that instead, she likes to set intentions that can help guide her focus and behavior for a given period of time. It really struck me as a better way to go about things. On the one hand, setting and achieving a measurable goal gives you great information about your quantitative progress over a span of time. “I set out to read 12 books, and I did it!” On the other, it exposes to you a number of serious shortcomings: your inability to plan, to adapt to changing conditions, to be realistic about what you can actually achieve.

Mostly, it leaves you feeling bad, either because you didn’t accomplish the thing that you set out to do, or maybe because you did accomplish it and hated every minute of working toward something you don’t actually care about.

Here’s a truly dumb, real-life example from last year: I wanted complete the 10×10 challenge, something the board gaming community labels as playing ten games ten times each. And I did it (a real achievement, obviously)! Ultimately, though, I disliked everything about it, particularly as the year-end got closer and closer, and I had a dedicated list of games that I needed to keep playing, regardless of whether I actually wanted to.

And, while I think that’s not a very meaningful example, I think it can be applied to other goals we beat ourselves up over. For instance, I set out to apply to one out of town WordCamp. I applied to four WordCamps total last year – three of them out-of-town – and was accepted to three. Goal accomplished! The problem is that I think I was so eager to prove to myself that I could do it, that I didn’t necessarily consider the ramifications of it all: the time it takes to prepare a talk, the time and expense of travel, the focus it can take away from other parts of your life. I had a wonderful time speaking at each of these conferences and, in hindsight, was really glad that I did it. But, at the end of the day, I don’t know that it furthered my own vision for whatever it is I’m setting out to achieve with my career or that it brought me closer to self-actualization of any sort. It was a thing that I arbitrarily set out to do, I did it, and now what?

Intent, however, is different, though it of course has its own sets of trade-offs. Let’s presume one of my intentions for this year is to perform more acts of kindness. How do I measure it? How will I know I’ve done it at the end of the year? Shouldn’t I instead set a goal of sending, say, ten thank you cards by December, or purchase five random gifts?

The distinction in my mind centers on how reflecting on the goal or intention happens. If the goal is to send ten thank you cards over the course of a year, you might revisit that goal every couple of months to see how your progress has gone, and realize that you’re either far behind on your goal (“I better send more thank you cards!”), or you’re far enough ahead that you can relax for awhile (“I already sent eight thank you cards! I can coast for a bit…”). Intention, however, can serve as more of a guiding principle (“Anytime someone invites me over for dinner, I want to follow up by sending a handwritten note.”). It accommodates for failure without needing to beat yourself up too much over that failure. It’s measurable in that you can still take stock in how well you adhered to that intention and, perhaps, whether it converted from intention to habit (“I intended to send thank you cards frequently, and now I do it all the time.”).

Perhaps this isn’t an ideal example, but it makes sense in my head, and that’s really all that matters, right? :)

What Are My Intentions?

This is the part upon which I’m still processing, and also where I’m probably also giving in to the normal focus of this blog. That said, I do want to comment a bit about the last year with the purpose of trying to think through this all out loud a bit.

First, something that I didn’t explicitly set as a goal in my post last year but that I’ve been working toward is enhancing my online privacy and either taking ownership of or redistributing management of my data. In 2019, I completed every step of the Online Security Checklist, which funnily is 90% “leave Google”, but that’s what I did. I canceled my Google G-Suite account and stopped using Gmail, Google Calendar (much to my partner’s dismay), and Google Maps. I closed my Dropbox account, because I feel the service they provide is encroaching beyond what I signed up for. I switched to Firefox, and use DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine. I use Apple Maps now which, although Apple has plenty of their own privacy concerns, I’m okay with because it’s not all about leaving one big service for another, but rather, no longer consolidating all of my eggs in one basket.

I also bought a Linux desktop, with the long-term intention of switching to Linux for work, too, if I find that I can work within that ecosystem. It’s a huge shift for me, but I’m enjoying the challenge of learning how to work in a new environment, just like I did when I switched from Windows to a Mac.

Second, I intend to slow down. I struggle a lot with indecision, in part because there are so many things I want to do that I wind up doing nothing at all. For instance, I’ve been wanting to write this blog post all week, but I’ve also wanted to get familiar with this new computer, help my friend upgrade his WordPress site, read a book, play some video games, play some board games, follow the historic news of the week, engage with the community, write e-mails to friends and family, attend bar trivia with my partner, go see the new Star Wars (I still haven’t), do my laundry… the list goes on and on. I need to learn to accept that I can’t do everything that I want to do. Instead, what I can do is dedicate my focus toward achieving something particular on a given day, and start there. Today, I want to publish this blog post and go spend time with my friends and share in the pride of seeing their teenage nephew play a show at a local rock club (I remember my first rock club show!).

In other words, I can be aware of all the things I want to do and make incremental progress toward doing them by setting a focus for the day. Checklists are great – my partner uses them all the time.

Third, I intend to write more. Not necessarily on this site, but I think taking account of how I’ve spent my time each day will give me a better sense of whether I’m on the right path. I’ve read stories from friends who have kept gratitude journals, and I think that’s one excellent way to take stock. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, but writing it down helps bring guidance and clarity. It’s a good reminder to myself, too, that not everything needs to be for public consumption. Sometimes just writing something down for the sake of relection brings about some level-setting and accountability.

Lastly, I intend to be more present. That means getting out of the house more, showing up for events, supporting my friends, and engaging in more conversations. It means putting the damn phone away. It might mean volunteering. I closed up shop when things got too demanding for me last year, and escaped into board games and screen time. It resulted in less investment in personal projects, less reaching out to make plans, less involvement in my community, and I’ve abhorred every minute of it (I mean, almost… I do love board games). I like talking to people, making friends, learning how to solve problems, and being helpful where I can. I don’t want to close myself off to potential friendships and new experiences just because I’m tired from a long day or things aren’t going just quite right at any particular moment. It’s important to set this intention and follow through as much as possible, because presence is supportive, and being supportive leads to all sorts of opportunities.

I’m grateful for my friendships, online acquaintances, and colleagues who helped pave the way for where I am today. This year, I intend to return the favor.