On Purpose: How Mindfulness Helps You Work With Intention

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Mindfulness is a practice of intentionally paying attention. In the last few months, I’ve been writing about the benefits of mindfulness and how to start bringing intention to your work.

Knowing why you pay attention to certain things and overlook others can help you clarify what steps you need to take to make an impact in your life and on the world. Strategizing and planning for the future are not in themselves destructive- in fact, they can be necessary for most situations. But sometimes we get distracted by our tendency to strategize out of the present moment, and this is where intention can come in.

Whether you’re writing an email, leaving your current job, or taking some time to yourself to avoid burnout, your actions are always guided by intention. Even unconscious intentions carry you through your day. Maybe you are aware that you want to grow in your career but you are unconsciously motivated by a desire to be comfortable and avoid risk by not drawing attention to yourself. Though you consciously want new experiences at your job, you might be sabotaging yourself by remaining unaware of this underlying desire for safety and comfort. By uncovering what motivates you and applying purpose to your work, you can really start to understand how best to turn your values into action.

Bringing intention to your work while easing up on goals

First let’s define the differences between intentions and goals. A goal is by definition not something that happens in the present moment, but is rather a future event. We “meet” our goals because we take the steps to achieve them. There is nothing inherently wrong with having specific things that you’d like to see happen in the future! The trouble comes in when you allow judgment to take root. What happens if you don’t make that goal? Maybe it makes you feel like an underachiever. This is where the concept of working with intention can help.  Intentions are something you can always come back to in the present moment.

Dismantling the success/failure binary

When you work with intentions, you don’t need an external circumstance to happen in order to be successful. In fact, intention can call into question the entire idea of failure. If, for instance, your intention is to have a sense of humor when you start to get frustrated, there is no requirement to be successful. If you feel you’ve missed the mark, you can always come back to the intention in the present moment, in the way a guiding star helps a ship navigate home. Once you can see beyond the rigid binary of success or failure, you can see the rich spectrum of alternatives that exist in between these two extremes.

Doing things for their own sake

Much of the time, we do things to achieve a specific outcome. You might not think about it this way, but go ahead and observe yourself for a few minutes as you go about your day. How much of your activity is designed for a specific outcome? As mentioned above, loosening your grip on having such rigidly defined goals can help you approach your work and life with a sense of curiosity. When something comes up that you didn’t expect, is it possible to check in with an attitude of seeing where it takes you? Even sports, which have their own goals and ways to succeed or fail, can be done for their own sake! I recently started taking guitar lessons, not to become the next Van Halen, but really just for the sake of challenging myself to engage with something for its own sake. Taking this attitude has made the process of learning chords much less frustrating, and almost a meditation practice. 

Caroline playing guitar

Caroline playing guitar

Intentions Open Us Up

Rigid goal-setting and future-fixation can blind you to the opportunities that are right under your nose, here in the present. If you feel fixated on a specific goal in the future, it could be limiting you. Consider what happens when you feel like you know exactly what you want: a particular accolade, or a senior position at a specific company. If you are

completely focused on these types of future events, you might miss the unexpected connections, networking opportunities, or happy accidents that are always happening all around us. We tend to filter out information that doesn’t support our preconceived notions, so if you feel like you know exactly what needs to happen, you might not notice the ways that embracing the unknown could lead us in interesting directions.

By working with intentions as guiding principles rooted internally and in the present, you can feel a little less like a tree blowing around in the wind, and instead feel more purposeful no matter what you’re doing.

Embracing Uncertainty

This one is not easy! We humans are very averse to uncertainty. In the face of an uncertain future, plans and strategies often function as a shield that we use to fend off the impact of those disasters we’re afraid will befall us. Take a few moments to consider any sources of anxiety you might have right now. How much of that is in relationship to feelings of uncertainty about the future, anticipating things that haven’t happened yet that may or may not come to pass? It’s a tall order, and some people spend their entire lives working on it, but staying present in the face of uncertainty allows you to see that there are possibilities hiding in that chaos.

Uncertainty also often makes us feel like we need to jump at the first (job) opportunity that comes along, without weighing whether it’s a good fit for us, or whether it serves our intentions. With a foundation of purpose, you can stay grounded in your values and respond skillfully, rather than react out of habit.

These are just a few of the ways that intention can help you bring a sense of purpose to whatever you do. Try it out yourself by articulating some clear intentions that might help open you up to your life and career. When considering how you relate to career and your sense of work/life balance, just ask yourself what purpose your actions serve. This can help you uncover the motivations you’re already working with to see if they might help or hinder the intentions you hold. What are some of the intentions you’ve been working with? Let us know!

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About Author

When Caroline Contillo is not supporting Idealists as part of the Community Engagement team, she teaches mindfulness meditation at non-profits and community centers in NYC. Previously, she worked at Businessweek Online and The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist meditation center.

3 Comments

  1. Courteney Douglas on

    I love this article, Caroline. Mindfulness can definitely help bring about more clarity to any situation, particularly something as important as one’s career.

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