How to Figure out your True Motives or Intentions

‘Take a moment to set an intention’.

Hmm, my intention. What, for the next hour? My day? For my life?

There’s a lot to be gained from following this simple command, given before standard yoga classes.

What are your intentions for doing what you did today? And why? Do you even know?

Taking the time to home in on our real intentions is something that otherwise smart people trained in thinking skeptically simply don’t bother to do. (Evidently, we are a lot more interested in discovering the intentions of others. In my research for this article, I googled ‘discover true intention’. What came up was a bunch of advice for reading the opposite sex’s mind.)

We are overly interested in other people's intentions at the expense of understanding our own Click To Tweet

But familiarizing ourselves with our raison d’etres is much more important than sussing out our mate/date’s.

As a person that hasn’t always taken the care to understand my intentions for doing what I do, I can attest to the fact that it can result in pastimes that – although may provide short term pleasure – did not give the longer term gratification that I sought. 

So my intention in writing this post is to mobilize you to taking intention self-discovery a little more seriously, if you don’t already.

I believe that this is a key practice in building what psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘authentic happiness’.

The intentions are there, whether we state them or not


It is not necessary to be in the habit of defining your intentions explicitly (though I highly recommend doing so): our intentions are often self-evident.

If you join an online dating site, your intention is clearly to go on dates.

If you decide to join a gym, your intention might be to get fit or lose weight.

If you decide to start volunteering, maybe your intention is ‘giving something back’.

If life is lacking in intention, we are simply fidgeting until we die Click To Tweet

Sometimes, we haven’t really taken any new actions for a while and we are simply doing things out of habit. Even in this case, there is intention (to maintain the status quo).

If we are lacking in intention, then we are just fidgeting until we die. 

Most of us, most of the time, are being fueled by intention.

And our intentions are pretty much all about one thing when it comes down to it.  

What’s behind all of our intentions 


A lot of it is about managing mood. It really is. 

We sooth ourselves against the abruptness of living. We do what we can to make ourselves a little more comfortable; a little happier; a bit more fulfilled.

So why do many of us fail to do a decent job of managing mood through our intentions – and wind up reading articles like this? 

In his brilliant book, Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman suggested that we become spiritually starving because we pursue the wrong kinds of pleasures. 

It’s not just positive feelings we want, we want to be entitled to our positive feelings. The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort and ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of us starving spiritually. Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character can lead to emptiness, inauthenticity and depression.

From this, it becomes obvious why understanding our real intentions is a vital exercise.

It is the key to knowing whether we are setting ourselves up for a short good time, or longer term gratification. 

Discovering what’s behind your specific intentions


Let’s look at the intentions above:

  • To start dating.
  • To get fit.
  • To give something back.

The ‘wants’ behind these intentions are fairly detectable on the face of things. For example:

  • To have fun; to maybe meet a partner; to get confidence back.
  • To look better; feel better; to be able to play with kids.
  • Because it feels meaningful. 

Asking ‘why’ is a little tricker. 

Why do you want to be fitter? 

Maybe you perceive getting fitter as being your passport to lasting love. Perhaps you think that by being in physical shape, you will get the relationship with the partner you deserve. Perhaps you do it for the social element. Perhaps you enjoy the mind benefits: resilience and strength.  

Why does pinpointing the reason as closely as possible matter? 

For starters, it makes a difference to the type of pain that you are willing to sustain. 

The great psychologist, Holocaust survivor and author, Viktor Frankl, said those who have a why to live can bear with any how.

If you are sticking militantly to a challenging fitness schedule and getting out there dating even though you find it uncomfortable, it is because you are deeply connected with your why for doing it. 

Knowing your 'why' makes a difference to the pain you will sustain Click To Tweet

Sometimes, we can become misguided in the intentions we pursue. Other times, we are within the right sphere of action, but the output needs a little fine tuning to be fully aligned with our whys. 

The more clarity we can get about our drivers, the more equipped we are to set intentions. 

Some practical ways of knowing our ‘real reasons’  

Sometimes, there is no reason. We do what we do just because. No analysis required.

There is this Chambord ad I love that hits that nail on the head.


This list is to help you with those other times – when recognizing your true intentions and their underlying whys feels important. 

Practice setting (real) intentions: For your day, or ahead of critical events/conversations. Keep it simple. This practice will help you to become more aware of your values and drivers. 

Reflect on the things you consistently do (and not do) without having to bully yourself: Try to uncover the reason why you are successful in maintaining some habits but not others. 

Try ‘the reason’ writing exercise. Write down the action (i.e. join the gym). And then write down as many reasons as you can think of. Record the most ridiculous, make believe reason. Record the most noble reason. Then try to write the ‘real’ one. And then the ‘really real’ one. 

This is supposed to be a little fun.

This exercise is so good because it forces you to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do – and what liars we are. It also lends a little lightness into things. You begin to see that one reason is really no superior to the other reason.

There are no 'bad' intentions. Just those more or less likely to bring us authentic happiness Click To Tweet

The point is to sharpen that skill of setting intentions that are more likely to bring us some authentic happiness.

Take an interest in knowing and understanding other people’s ‘whys’: I’m not talking about second guessing their intentions with you. I’m talking about asking them why they think such and such is important to them. This is a great way to understand yourself and them better. Plus, it helps to create connection. 

Take a self-discovery jaunt using the Enneagram.

Getting more in touch with your heart: This is less easy for some of us than others. For those of us that live in our heads, the tonics come in the form of basic self care practices like mindfulness (thinking about thinking). We get more in touch with our feelings about things (instead of our thinkings) by consciously taking the focus off analyzing things onto sensing them. 

Lose something – a job, a partner, a house: Obviously I wouldn’t recommend it, but when someone or something is unceremoniously removed from life, this is a great opportunity to question our real reasons for caring. 

Commit to learning about self through reading, journalling, reflection, coaching. 

Accept that sometimes the why eludes us. Chill out. Clarity will come. 

Ultimately, this is about finding out what’s important to you and why, and deciding whether continually valuing these things is building you some authentic happiness – or whether you are barking up the wrong tree.  

This post overlaps with themes outlined in the previous posts: