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How to Make New Years' Intentions (Not Resolutions)

New Years' resolutions often get broken. Setting intentions is another option.

shutterstock/used with permission
Source: shutterstock/used with permission

Every year just before your midnight toast, you may think about and set New Years’ resolutions. And then, without fail, every year you may find that you break them. It might take a day, a week, or a month, but by the time the next year rolls around, chances are you’ve completely forgotten your resolutions. The fact that they were meant to be broken is almost a cliché.

Why does this occur, and how can you break this pattern of broken New Years’ resolutions? Probably, the reason you break them is that there’s a lack of accountability for them, as it’s often very difficult to be accountable to ourselves.

Okay, let’s say you ditch the idea of setting a resolution, and instead set intentions. For some reason, this approach may seem less daunting. Setting intentions encourages a sense of self-awareness and alignment with who you are and what you truly want.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, an intention is something you plan to bring about, achieve, or manifest. It’s not about resolving any issue, as the word resolution alludes to. When setting intentions, you’re manifesting a dream or trying to direct your thoughts in a particular way. Intentions don’t have to be set for the year, but can be set on a daily basis, and are best made first thing in the morning. Setting intentions can also be a way to navigate through difficult times. They’re a way to break down the task of handling difficult situations, encounters, or events that might arise in your life.

In the Buddhist tradition, an intention is not oriented toward any future outcome, but rather, is a path you follow for either the present day or another designated time period. Setting an intention is one way to begin to think about changing a pattern of behavior, such as an addiction or some other stress response.

As Daniel J. Siegel says in his powerful book, The Mindful Brain, “Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: we can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner.”

In addition to sharing your intentions with loved ones, one way to cement your intention in your mind is to write it down over and over again in your journal, like you did in grade school when you were naughty. Remember when you had to write, “I will be good” fifty times? Repetition can be empowering and facilitate change or transformation.

There are different ways to set intentions. You can simply create an intention for yourself because of something you need or want to focus on. For example, let’s say you’re going to have dinner with a family member who irritates you. In the past, you may have had a pattern of being reactive to his or her hurtful comments—so much so that it was almost like a verbal explosion. On the morning of your dinner, you might decide to set an intention that you will not be reactive, and instead will take a different stance—that is, you will become an observer.

Beginning your day or year by declaring an intention is also a good way to set the tone. Remember that in life we have a lot of choices. For the most part, anything we do is a choice. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl talks about how one choice can affect the trajectory of the rest of our lives. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, made the choice to remain behind and care for the patients in the concentration camp he was in. He made this choice based on his intention, and what he saw as his life purpose.

When setting an intention, avoid using the word "should," which implies that you think of yourself as a victim. Another word to avoid is "want." Using this word implies a passive role in achieving your intention. As an alternative, use the word "choose." For example, “I choose to express gratitude on a more regular basis.” Also, try to avoid the phrases “I want” or "I will," which puts your intentions into the future. Instead, consider setting your intentions in the present tense, as if they're already happening.

Setting intentions is highly individualized, but here are some that my writing students have formulated in the past:

I experience inner peace.

I heal an inner wound.

I am gentle with myself.

I celebrate life.

I am able to relax

I learn something new about myself every day.

I experience clarity.

I am fully present.

I connect to my higher power.

I am mindful of my breath

As an alternative, use the word "choose." For example, “I choose to express gratitude on a more regular basis.”