5 Science-Backed Tips for Setting and Following Through on Intentions


Set your intention for your day every morning.: Photo by: fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus collection/Getty Images

In yoga practice, setting an intention is a call to focus on the big picture: Who do you want to be? The answer might be “joyful” or “aware of the beauty in the world.”

It is not, typically, a concept you would apply to work or everyday deadlines.

Still, intentionality and goal setting are linked. After all, your (one) brain is in charge of both.

To help you juice brainpower and follow through on intentions, here are five tips derived from current research:

Know Your Networks

Neuroscientists divide brain function into four neural networks: default, reward, affect and control. They’re all important, but what sets humans apart from animals is the last one, which enables us to forego immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals.

In the famous marshmallow study of emotional intelligence from the 1960s, an emotionally intelligent four-year-old resists eating a single marshmallow now in favor of having two later. It’s the control network, known colloquially as willpower, that enables him to do this.

This has been demonstrated physiologically. When the control network takes charge, blood flow shifts to regions of the brain associated with achieving objectives.

Don’t Overtax the Control Network

You probably know from personal experience that willpower is a limited resource. Just as nimble companies prioritize the number of objectives to be pursued at once, individuals should focus on a limited number of goals.

Typically, two or three must-dos is enough. More will stress the network, with the result that you accomplish less.

And when it comes to multitasking, trying to do several things simultaneously, don’t even bother. Multiple studies, including one comparing the GPAs of students at the University of Connecticut, show that the attempt ends in fruitless wheel-spinning as your brain struggles to sort what’s relevant from what’s not.

The Early Bird Gets It Done

Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely says that most people’s control network enjoys peak performance in the two hours after wake-up. Use those hours wisely — one strategy to ensure this is to plan your morning the night before.

By the same token, morning is the best time to dive in and accomplish the task you’re dreading, according to Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister.

A fun subset of this concept is advice popularized by self-help guru Tim Ferris in his book, The Four-Hour Body. Start your day with a freezing cold shower. According to Ferris, everything else you take on will seem easy compared with a blast of cold water first thing in the morning. The EO products in your hotel shower could make this less daunting.

Work Out Hard

A host of research shows that exercise helps the brain function better. And recent studies imply that hard workouts are best.

According to New York University research on mice, strenuous exercise enhances production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is associated with healthy neurons and synapses.

Why? Apparently ketones released into the bloodstream stimulate the genes that make BDNF to put in a workout of their own. So head down to the fitness center or simply choose a great work out out of many in your EVEN Hotels room.

In another study, Dutch scientists reviewed research on humans and noted correlation between exercise and improved self-control. This may be because exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the prefrontal cortex, where self-control originates.

Try It, You’ll Like It

Once you get used to meeting your goals, you’ll want to keep doing so. That’s the conclusion of Chinese scientists, who recently studied the brain chemistry of those ever-useful mice.

Using sophisticated technology, including specially adapted viruses, the scientists were able to motivate formerly subordinate mice to try harder and succeed in competition with their tougher cage-mates. Even without the technology, the one-time wimps kept trying and succeeding, causing the scientists to infer that success had become a reward of its own.

Whether you’re setting an intention like attaining inner peace — or a more attainable goal like writing a birthday card to Grandma — brain scientists have your back. Come to think of it, the example illustrates the tight link between grand intentions and the small items on the to-do list. If you’re looking for a healthy dose of inner peace, picture the smile on Grandma’s face when she gets that card.

About the Author

Philadelphia-based Martha Freeman writes about everything from aerospace to zip-lines, and has published more than 20 novels for kids. She is also an enthusiastic member of the Fishtown Beer Runners club.