A New Way to set Goals: Values, Intentions, Goals


There's a tradeoff between flexible and specific goals.
Flexible goals allow you to adapt to changing circumstances, but are often too vague.
Specific goals give more guidance on how to actually get to where you want to be, but can be too rigid.
To strike a balance between making flexible and specific goals, consider your values, intentions, and goals and make sure that they are all aligned.

The art of goal-setting involves striking a balance between goals that are broad and ambitious and goals that are specific and realistic. The fact that the world is random and that we often don't know what's going to happen suggest that we should be open to having our goals change as we learn new information about our environment and circumstances. However, the vagueness of broad goals often leads to inaction and makes retrospective goalpost-shifting easy to hide, even from ourselves. This suggests that specific action-oriented goals are needed to turn these goals into reality.

Flexible vs. Specific Goals

I've always struggled to find the balance between the two. In my teen and early twenties, I leaned towards broad goals. Of the few New Year resolutions that I could find from that period, most of them consisted of cringe-worthy and sweeping pledges like "I want to be more creative", "I want to be more kind", "I want to be a better sister and daughter." At some point between then and now, I grew up enough to realize that the ambition laden in "I want to be more creative" often dissolves into inaction. I failed to seriously consider what being creative looks like and what I need to do on a day-by-day basis to actually become a creative person.

That's when action-point lists entered my life. For the past few January 1st-s, my day has started with making a list of things that I want to do in the coming year. The list consists of action points that take the form "do X by time T" or "do X this many times per time interval". In theory, anything could count as an X as long as it was action-oriented. This means Xs could be process-oriented or results-oriented. In practice, writing these action-oriented goals forced me to be realistic about what I could achieve given the resources I have that year (e.g. time, money). These action-points were helpful. By stating a specific time, frequency, or location that I want to do something by or at, doing those things became easier and making excuses to shirk became more difficult. I also got a little kick and confidence boost when I could tick off some of those things on December 31st.  

While I appreciate the concreteness and specificity of these action-oriented goals, I'm also increasingly convinced that they can be too rigid. Action-goals are forward-looking in nature. So, setting realistic and achievable action-goals requires knowing something about the future you and the future world. This can be difficult because we often don't have enough information at the time of making these action-goals to determine what the right goals are. (How many of your 2020 goals got chucked out the window by COVID?) One potential solution to this problem is to allow yourself to update your goals when you get new information. But this goalpost shifting exercise seems like a distasteful hack. What makes it okay to shift the goalpost when you find out that you'll never get a shot in the original goalpost? When does this become the goal-setting equivalent of a "retrospective" to-do list?

The 3 tier system: Values, Intentions, Goals  

Given that both flexible and specific goals have their advantages and disadvantages, I decided that it would be ideal if each item on my list this year is both flexible and specific. I thought a little about how to strike this balance and came up with the following. When setting goals, we should: (a) simultaneously consider our values, intentions, and goals, (b) ensure that they're aligned, and (c) only permit ourselves to change our goals but not our values or intentions.

(a) Values, intentions, and goals

Values are things that are most important to you in your life. They can't be "checked" off a list like action-goals. You have to commit to values daily. Values can typically be defined by single words or phrases like "connection", "creativity", "freedom", "courage", "adventure", "equality".

Intentions are statements about how you want to show up in the world. They're guideposts for who you want to "be" and how you want to show up, instead of what you want to "do" or accomplish. For example, if one of your core values is compassion, you might set an intention that looks like this: I choose to show compassion to myself and others. Without being consciously aware of it, you're probably setting intentions when you write things like "I want to be more creative". Like values, intentions can't be "checked" off a list. Unlike goals, they are not dependent on the future. You can be successful in doing it right now.

Goals are the action points that decorate our typical New Year's Resolutions. Goals are tangible. They can be checked off because you either do them or you don't. They have to do with "doing" rather than "being". They're usually narrow and specific. Unlike values and intentions, goals have to do with the future.

(b) Aligning our values, intentions, and goals

When setting goals, we should ensure that the three tiers are aligned. In particular, your intentions should be value driven. It's about embodying the values you hold dear. For example, if your value is kindness, your intention might be: "I intend to show acts of kindness today, opening myself to any possibility to bring joy into the life of another". At the next step up, your action-oriented goals should help you fulfil your intentions. Following on from this example, if your intention is to show acts of kindness, your action-oriented goals should specify what acts of kindness you can perform, as well as when and where you can do them.

(c) Hold lightly to goals, but firmly to your values and intentions

To strike the balance between flexibility and specificity, we should hold lightly to goals but firmly to our values and intentions. Changing our goals allows us to better design the blueprint that will enable us to fulfil our intentions when circumstances change and new information is revealed. Having our values and intentions stay constant ensures that even when we change our goalpost, we're still heading in the right direction.

Some practical steps

To implement this in practice, take a sheet of paper and draw three columns. The left column is for your values, the middle for your intentions, and the right for your goals. By the end of this exercise, each row should be filled with one core value (left), how you would show up in the world with that value (middle), and concrete actions you can take to show up as that person with that value (right). It might take a while, but it's worth it. There are two broad approaches to populating this table.

Method 1 (Bottom up approach). First, take a values test. Although I often hear people talk about their "values", I haven't thought much about what my core values are. To fix this problem, I looked up on a list of values and thought about how much importance I put on each one (check out this from Scott Jeffrey or this one from James Clear). I then decided to go up one step and take a values-test (here's a starting point). It was reassuring to learn that both methods gave similar answers. Second, for each of my top 5 values, I wrote an intention. Finally, for each intention I brainstormed actions that could help me fulfil them. Note that this is a brainstorm, so it's helpful to write out several possible actions corresponding to that intention in case your environment changes and one of those action-goals is no longer feasible.

Method 2 (Top down approach). First, fill out the right column (goals) by listing out your conventional action-oriented goals. Second, for each of these goals, think about the value and intention that underlie it. For example, if your goal is to get your scuba-diving license in 2021, this goal might stem from a value or adventure or the intention of embodying the spirit of adventure. Fill in the left and right columns accordingly. Third, go back to the right column and come up with "back up" action-goals that are consistent with the values and intentions in columns (1) and (2).  

I don't think either Method 1 or 2 is better than the other. Often, action-oriented goals come to us first because we don't think much about our values. Nevertheless, it's informative to think about where these goals stem from. Other times, you might have a set of intentions that you want to fulfil (e.g. "to be more kind") but no plans on how to how to fulfil them. This is where making concrete goals might be helpful. Whichever strikes you first - values, intentions, goals - the key is that you are aware of the feedback between these tiers and attempt to ensure that these three tiers are aligned and keep each other in check.


What follows is going to sound a bit douchebag-y but I wonder if this is how a modern Aristotle would go about his new year's resolutions. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasizes the feedback loop between virtues and acts. A virtuous person is someone who has a disposition to do virtuous acts. Simultaneously, virtue is an asset that grows through righteous acts. You can't become virtuous by just thinking and reasoning about virtue, you need to practice it. Translated into our framework, values and intentions make up the virtues while the goals are our attempt at practising those virtues.