setting intentions morning routine

Morning Rituals: How to Set Intentions That Actually Work

When I started trying to manage my burnout and day-to-day stress, I found that there was a lot of advice out there…but much of it was vague and didn’t cover the basics of how to get started. Setting intentions was one of those practices that everyone raved about. And though it seemed obvious on the face of it, when I sat down to try it, I found myself stumped. What exactly was an intention? How do I set it? Just say it out loud? How does that work? In my confusion, I found myself making wishy-washy statements I completely forgot about 10 minutes later. After a few weeks of floundering, I decided to figure out exactly how to set intentions that would work for me before going any further. Here’s what I learned.

What Are Intentions, Anyway?

Let’s start by differentiating between “intentions” and “goals.” While goals are specific objectives we strive to achieve, like running a marathon or completing a project, intentions focus on our present state of being—how we aspire to feel and interact with the world today.

Setting an intention is a deliberate act of stating what is important to you based on your values and aspirations, and making sure your actions align with that statement.

setting intentions morning routine

For example, the goal may be to run a marathon, but the daily intention might be something more like “I am a person who shows up for themselves and honors personal commitments.” That intention is SO much bigger than running a marathon, but the actions that come out of it can lead to consistent daily runs. This focus on the present is what makes intentions so powerful, guiding our daily actions and mindset.

Why are intentions crucial, especially on stressful days? They act as reminders of how we want to live each day, helping us remain mindful and proactive rather than reactive. When life throws challenges our way, our intentions can serve as anchors, keeping us grounded and focused.

For that marathon runner, they may be looking at the couch and feeling the pull of Netflix after a long day…and then their intention comes knocking. Of course part of them would love to binge Queer Eye and eat popcorn all night, but they are a person who shows up for themselves and honors personal commitments so they lace up and hit the pavement first. See how that works?

The Science Behind Setting Intentions

Morning Human loves a science-backed strategy, so I wanted to make sure this practice was legit before adding it to my morning routine. As it turns out, intentions can be pretty powerful. According to recent neuroscience research, by stating our intentions, we activate specific parts of our brain that make us more likely to recognize opportunities that align with our aspirations.

And intentions involving detailed plans—known as “implementation intentions”—are especially effective. These are intentions where you not only decide what you want to do but also where, when, and how you will do it. It’s almost like you’re tricking your brain into helping you get things done.

And there’s more good news. When you set intentions as part of a mindfulness practice, there are loads of benefits for your mental health and well-being. By setting intentions, you’re lining up your day-to-day actions with what you really want out of life. It pushes you to think deeper about what you’re after and what needs shaking up in your life. And this habit of intention-setting gets you into a routine of self-reflection, which is great for personal growth.

More importantly, focusing on these intentions shifts your mind away from controlling outcomes to enjoying the ride. It’s a gateway to a more mindful lifestyle, keeping you focused on the present and making choices that match the path you want to be on.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Setting Effective Intentions

Okay, so now that we know the what and why of setting intentions, let’s get down to the how. This process can take just a few minutes, or you can set aside a couple of hours on a weekend to go deep and find the intentions that really resonate.

setting intentions morning routine

Step 1: Reflect

Take a moment to reflect on what truly matters to you. What aspects of your life do you wish to enhance? Use meditation, walks in nature, or journaling as tools to help you connect with your inner values and desires.

Step 2: Be Specific

Craft clear and actionable intentions. Instead of a broad intention like “be happier,” specify actions that contribute to happiness, such as “I start each day by listing three things I’m grateful for.”

Step 3: Be in the Moment

Treat your intention like it is already a part of who you are. The use of present tense is a powerful message to the brain. “I am nurturing my relationship with myself” means you are in the process of taking action, “I will nurture my relationship with myself” tells your brain it can file this task away for later.

Step 4: Incorporate Into Daily Routines

Once you’ve figured out your intentions, the next step is to remind yourself of them. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation. Embed your intentions into your daily routine to ensure they influence your daily actions. Set reminders, create rituals, or find creative ways to keep your intentions in your active consciousness throughout the day. Make them part of your morning routine or stick post it notes on your mirror. Anything to keep your intention top of mind.

Step 5: Review and Adjust

Regularly reviewing your intentions allows you to see what’s working and what isn’t. This reflective practice is crucial for keeping your intentions aligned with your evolving life and circumstances.

Common Pitfalls in Setting Intentions

While you may start out with the best intentions (sorry!), there are a few pitfalls to be aware of. Avoiding these can help set you up for success.

  • Being too vague: Ambiguous intentions are less likely to lead to actionable behavior. Always specify what, how, and when you will embody your intentions.
  • Lack of commitment: Setting an intention without commitment is like planting a seed but not watering it. Commitment is the water that nurtures the growth of your intentions. That’s why it’s important to pick intentions that are meaningful to you, so you’re more likely to follow through.
  • Forgetting to revisit and revise: Life changes, and so should your intentions. Make it a habit to revisit your intentions regularly to ensure they still resonate with your current needs and circumstances.
  • Ignoring small successes:  It’s important to recognize and celebrate even the smallest successes related to your intentions. This builds momentum and reinforces your commitment.

Back to Me on the Mat

So there I was (after researching intentions and figuring this all out), on my mat and ready to try again. I had thought about what was important to me: becoming resilient in the face of overwhelming stress at work. I thought about what it might take to become a more resilient person, and what qualities I might need to align myself with, and then I got specific. Here’s the intention I ended up with.

I recognize signs of stress in my body
and take steps to slow down in the moment.

I started repeating this to myself 3 times each morning and set a reminder on my phone for 2pm each day to repeat it again. After just a few days, I found I was so much calmer. I had shifted from reacting to the problem (insane work expectations) and focusing on the kind of person I wanted to be in the face of the problem. That is a massive mindset shift. Let me tell you it’s far easier to become a person who does breathing exercises in her cubicle than to dismantle capitalist/corporate culture over your lunch break.

Maintaining a Daily Practice

Once I had success with my first intention I was excited to try others, and now this practice is part of my daily morning routine. (You can download the 3-question journaling prompts I use here.) Like most things, it’s something you get better at over time. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Maintaining daily intentions can be challenging, especially during busy or stressful periods. But here are some tips to keep you on track:

setting intentions morning routine
  • Stay flexible: Be willing to adapt your intentions as needed. Flexibility allows you to respond to life’s unpredictability without losing sight of your overarching aspirations.
  • Seek support: Share your intentions with a friend or a community. Support from others can boost your motivation and provide accountability.
  • Keep it joyful: Incorporate elements of joy and fun in the process. Setting intentions should feel uplifting, not burdensome.

That last one is probably the most important, we humans just won’t do things we find unpleasant, at least not for long. I like to throw in a joyful intention every few weeks, just to mix it up. “I enjoy the surprises my day has in store for me” is a go-to of mine.

Set Intentions, Live Intentionally

Setting intentions won’t solve all your problems, but the practice can be a reminder to live more intentionally. To confront the moment you’re in and handle it like your best self would. And remember that it’s these small, consistent steps that create the most lasting impact. Like drops of water that eventually fill a bucket, each intentional act you perform moves you closer to the life you want to be living.

Setting intentions and trying to live up to them doesn’t mean you won’t have bad days, but it does mean you’ll have a strategy for dealing with them. And sometimes, that makes all the difference.

Are you already a pro at setting intentions? What intentions have shaped your life recently? Share them in the comments below! And don’t forget to grab your free download of the 3-question journaling prompts!

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  1. Great guide to setting and implementing daily intentions. Loads of great ideas and explanations. Thank you!

  2. Setting a daily intention is not something I do daily but, whenever I do it, my day is so much better! 🙂

  3. Such a great guide. I have not done a great job with my routine the past few weeks. This was a gentle reminder to get back on track. Thank you!

    1. Falling off the wagon with morning routines is SO normal. It’s important not to feel bad about that. Just get back to it how and when you can…not because you should, just because it makes you feel better!

    1. YOu can definitely find ways to make it easier on yourself, like just committing to a minute or two each morning to set intentions. Or do it while you’re making coffee. Tt gets easier the more you do it, and it does pay off!

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