Avoiding The Intention Setting Trap: Three Tools to Make and Keep New Year’s Resolutions

One Mind Dharma once again welcomes a post from Kate Spina. If you enjoy Kate’s posts (like we do), you can find the link to her posts at the bottom of this page!

As we begin a new year there is often a lot of talk about setting intentions, resolutions, or goals for the coming year. It’s a cultural norm, gyms and weight loss centers see a spike in attendance in January, and most meditation centers see an increase in attendance in January. Across social media people are touting their goals for the year, or their word of the year, or how much they accomplished last year.

And for those of us with a critical mind, this can be tricky. How do we set intentions without them becoming yet another arena for us to beat ourselves up about? How do we not get lost in comparing mind? How do we allow this cultural momentum to help push us forward without pushing us over?

It took me 5 years to truly implement a daily meditation practice. Why? Because didn’t know how to set a kind intention. I didn’t know how to set a goal I could keep for myself. With external support, like at school or work, I was always able to keep up with the required tasks but I didn’t know how to do that for myself. Through my practice I’ve found three tools that have helped me make and keep my intentions throughout the year.


The second factor of the eightfold path is wise intention. Before any action there is an intention. When we are rooted in wise intention we are making sure we are not harming ourselves or others, we’re letting go of what is not needed, and we acting out of goodwill. There are all key factors to take into account when we’re setting an intention.

This year, on my birthday, I set the intention to cultivate forgiveness toward myself this year. It meets all three criteria. First, it’s in line with non-harming, because I am specifically trying to heal old wounds, and not increase harm in any way. Second, it’s an intention to let go of the legacy of self-hatred that no longer serves me. And third, it’s rooted in this desire to be kinder to myself and in turn the world around me.

Non-harming, letting go, and goodwill can be applied to any intention. Whether it’s losing weight or limiting screen-time or becoming more punctual or cultivating equanimity or changing relationship patterns with a family member, these three aspects can be at the center. With any intention you set, use this as a test, does it include non-harming, letting go and good will? If so, you’re headed in the right direction.


At the end of a retreat I set the intention “to let go of caring what other people think of me.” That’s broad. Spacious. It gave me room to figure out what that meant, so that I wouldn’t get caught in a trap of micromanaging my own behavior. But, that ended up being too broad. I also needed some measurable steps to help me take some action. So I decided, before I make any “big” decision I will meditate and see if there’s any resistance from me, and check in and make sure I’m making the decision for myself and not for other people. And, before I make plans with other people I explore my internal experience to make sure it is really what I want to do. So I have two areas of my life I am “measuring” to make sure I’m aligning myself with my intention.

Another tool I use is a daily checklist. With my intention to live a healthy life there are several behaviors I want to do daily, such as drinking a certain amount of water and reading the suttas and not using electronics in bed. I have a pretty long list but I only have to do a certain number each day to get a check mark on my calendar. It’s broad, because there are a lot of different activities I can do to “earn” my checkmark, and it’s measurable – I can see daily progress, and I can see the days when it is harder to keep up with it. It feels pretty good at the end of the day to see how much I have accomplished.


My practice allows me to know myself more deeply, so before I set an intention I can sit with it and ask, is this realistic for me? Is this what I need right now? And then see how I respond. Does my body tense up? Do I immediately get lost in discursive thinking? Or is there some spaciousness?

Recently I set an intention to sit for 45 minutes every day no matter what. On retreats I was seeing how the longer sits really benefited my practice. So there was an internal motivation to deepen my practice. But then I had to look at the practicalities; in the winter I live in a cold place, so I often shorten my sit so I can have more time in bed. So I got a warm robe to wrap up in while I sit. Also I work early, so sitting longer means waking a bit earlier which in turn means going to bed a bit earlier. In the winter I kind of hibernate so that all felt doable.

And I’ve been sticking with it, because it feels manageable, and not too big of a stretch, and I have an internal motivation to do it.

An example of an unrealistic intention was when I tried to cut out refined sugar the first time. I wasn’t ready, I didn’t fully understand the benefits of cutting it out, so I didn’t care that much, and I did not set myself up for success. I was dating someone who kept a lot of peanut butter cups in my fridge, and I didn’t ask him to stop. I would go to the ice cream shop with my friends and allow myself to get tempted. I would tell myself it was rude not to accept a cookie from a friend. I wasn’t ready, it was not a realistic goal.

When I finally chose to cut out refined sugar I had done the research, I understood why I was doing it, and I started by saying I would do it for three months. Years later, I know I’ve stuck to this because it was realistic, and I was ready.

This practice of setting intentions is valuable whatever time of year we do it. As long as we make sure our intentions are realistic, broad but measurable and rooted in non-harming, letting go and goodwill. Then our critical mind doesn’t need to get caught up in making it another arena for self harm, and our intention can truly transform and benefit our lives.

About Kate

Kate Spina, LCSW, is a meditation facilitator at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, an Adaptive Ski Instructor, and a lover of the Dharma. She splits her time between Ventura, CA and Telluride, CO. Kate can be reached at [email protected] You may read Kate’s posts (and stay tuned in for more) by visit www.OneMindDharma.com/Kate.

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