Setting intentions can help with distractions

The mind is a bit of a grey box, and in many cases things seem to work one way or another without being explicitly clear why. Lately I’ve been altering the start of my meditation sessions as explained in TMI, and I found an interesting effect of setting intentions before starting. Although there are countless books about distractions nowadays, I haven’t encountered this particular insight yet.


When closely inspecting your mind (as one might do during meditation), you might start to experiencing how a “mind state” emerges. While paying attention on something, your mind constantly gets distracted, many times per second. These are just little waves that subtly alter the clarity of you attention; a little sensation, a random though or just a lazy slip of the mind. Most of them will go as quickly as they came, often without you even noticing they happened.

But some of these distractions are stronger, strong enough to make a wave big enough for your mind to latch on to. Very quickly that distraction expands to fill your entire mind. The mind forgets what it was doing as the new thought completely overwrites the whole awareness, without realizing it happens. Funny to think about: you are fully aware about the content of the distraction (“I really have to write that email, make sure it contains…”), but you are oblivious to the fact that the distraction happened in the first place. Seconds – maybe even minutes – later you remember what you were doing, and realize you were distracted. While being distracted is one thing, this process is also how “bad” mindstates like anger or craving emerge.

So how can intentions help here?


Intentions, once set, are temporarily kept in a separated compartment of your mind, which will continuously monitor what the rest of the brain is doing. As soon as a mind state emerges that conflicts with the intention, it raises a warning. In practice that means that just before your mind gets completely absorbed into a distraction, your mind will tell you “hey, this isn’t what you intended to do!”. Instead of running off into some useless imagination trip, you drop the distraction and get right back to what you wanted to do. Simple and effective.

Working with intentions – or variants like “fake it until you make it” – have been known for generations, but it’s interesting to get a peek at the internal workings. They aren’t very strong in themselves, even very solid intentions will just sporadically pop up. The key is that they do so at the exact right moment, just before you are about to tip into a mindstate that you didn’t want to end up in.

Some practical things I’ve noticed:

  • Literally tell yourself your intention (in your “mind voice”). Examples are “during this meditation I will not move until the bell rings”, or “I will take a deep sleep, and wake up at sunrise, completely rested”.
  • It works on anything you have to set your mind to, and it’s a great tool for daily life. You can set intentions to have a good time at a party you weren’t that looking forward to, intend to sleep well, do chores, take smaller meals etc.
  • Don’t set too many. Usually 1 or 2 at a time will be most effective, though you can go a little higher if you mix short-term with long-term.
  • Make them specific, but keep it simple. “Let’s sleep tonight” works, but not as good as “Let’s sleep and wake fully rested tomorrow”.
  • Repetition makes them stronger
  • It’s hard (impossible for me at least) to observe your intentions once they are set, which makes them even the better. Set and forget, and they’ll pop up the second you need then.
  • Once an intention rises to your awareness (“it’s 9:00, let’s do the dishes like you promised!”), ignoring it will greatly weaken it, and make it harder in the future to set the same one. If you appreciate the heads-up and follow it, the intention will become stronger the next time you want to use it.
  • Intentions can be amazingly specific once they are strong, things like “wake up at 6:00” can be accurate within a couple of minutes.
  • While setting intentions can be very helpful (it takes seconds, they have an amazing invested time/reward ratio), they are limited. Meditation will get you far, far beyond.