By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Target with darts on it

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

We all struggle with goal-setting (don’t worry, it’s not just you!). Why is that? It’s hard to plan forward. Often we don’t have all of the information that we need, or can’t identify next steps. It can be overwhelming to think about putting ideas into action, and can lead to a bit of the impostor syndrome: why do I deserve this or what if I fail? We’re often asked to set goals around things we don’t care about: other people’s goals for us at work or school. We’ve had prior experience with goals that weren’t successful, and don’t see the point. We often set goals that are too big or too unrealistic (hello, New Year’s Resolutions) and are doomed for failure right out of the gate.

Mostly, though, goal-setting is hard because, like many things we’re asked to do on a regular basis, no one ever teaches us how to do it well. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t appear on this earth with intuitive knowledge about writing great goal statements.

The process of writing goals can be a drag, but it can be learned. But getting over that internal messaging that tells you you’re not good enough, or smart enough, or well-equipped enough is a much bigger challenge. So let me encourage you to shift your mindset from the rigid language and framework of “goals” to the looser and I think more positive idea of “intentions.”

An intention, on the face of it, is no different from a goal. It’s a plan. A purpose. A target. But a goal, in its essence, is a rigid noun, a thing that sits out there, waiting on you to achieve it. An intention, on the other hand, is an action, and in many ways more accurately describes the constant forward motion of the goal-achievement process. When we have good intentions to achieve something, we put our positive energy there. It doesn’t mean that you don’t still have to do the work. It just frees you up to be forward-thinking, and perhaps a bit more playful in doing that work.

No matter what you want to call it, the process is one of reflecting backward and projecting forward, and then identifying some concrete action steps to get you further down your path. Here is a framework to get you started:

Reflecting on the past 1-3 years, what have you learned about your skills, strengths, and your gaps?


Projecting forward, in the next 1-3 years, where would you like to see yourself, which is different from where you are now? (This could be an actual physical place, an organization, a role, an accomplishment, a new set of skills, etc.)


What are 2-3 intentions that you will commit to over the next year to get closer to that vision?


In the next three months, what action steps will you take to make progress?


In the next six months, what action steps will you take to make progress?


What will you need to support you (people, resources, opportunities)?


Margaret Thatcher has been quoted as saying, “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Setting intentions is not without consequence. Indeed, we always want to think about the impact of our intentions, on ourselves and others. Done right, the best of intentions you set today could very well steer the course of your future, tomorrow.