When Intentions Go Wrong

Don’t let the Past Dictate Your Future.

Macro intentions and micro intentions can be good, bad or completely bloody ugly.  The thing about intentions that you really have to understand is they heavily influence your choices, your perceptions and your behaviours for good or ill.  The point of this blog is to get you to start thinking about your unconscious/semi-conscious automatic intentions versus consciously determined carefully crafted intentions.  In other words do you want to let your past learned intentions dictate your future or do you want to learn a way to consciously create the kind of intentions that support you getting more of what you want from life and career?

When You Don’t Choose Your Intentions.

If you don’t consciously determine your intentions in any given situation you will be relying on your past learned experiences to set them.  If your past experiences were good to excellent and if they apply directly to the present situation then great, off you go you can rely on them.  No problems letting the past dictate the future.  On the other hand if they weren’t so great and they don’t quite apply then watch out because you are about to reproduce all the not so great parts of your past in the present.

You see any automatic intentions arise from your past learning experiences which means when triggered all your past assumptions, values,  expectations and rules get activated and come flooding into your brain and start to dictate your decisions.  If you are unaware of this happening then you are heading for a set back or a train wreck in some cases and you don’t even know it.  Your intentions are the first active step in a chain of events that determine the outcomes.  They are the ground zero of every event that follows.  Often your intentions dictate the entire course and direction of those events for better or worse.

Past learned experiences overlayed on your present will significantly alter your perceptions by influencing what you look for in any given situation; they will determine your behaviour selection by making you respond to any given situation based on the past beliefs,  whether its the best behaviour or not. This is how we constantly find ourselves stuck in Groundhog Day.

How Do I Know I’m Reacting?

I often get asked does anyone know if they are reacting automatically or not.  That is simple enough to answer.  If you respond really fast without thinking about it you are reacting.  In other words you’ve just activated a past intention.  On the other hand consciously engaging in any situation takes time attention and careful consideration.

The Solution Is In Your Intentions.

It is easy to understand that most of our intentions are derived from past experiences (1,2).   Despite a desire for best outcomes in the here and now intentions formed in the past can significantly influence our present decisions typically causing us to repeat the past in the present.     It’s generally agreed that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour (1,2). Now this is fine if your past doesn’t haunt you.  But if you’re like most of us your past learnings are not always that helpful in the present.  What’s more some of our past learnings are down right scary.   But don’t fear it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you find yourself repeating past mistakes and you don’t really know why you keep doing “that stupid thing” then it is time for a bit of reinventing by “Re-Intending”. The  past doesn’t have to dictate the future if we consciously decide to create new intentions.

I know this sound painfully obvious but you’d be surprise how often we  fail to set new positive intentions even though we keep making poor decisions time and time again.  If you are brave enough do an audit of your automatic responses and see what percentage of them are fine and what percentage are dumping you into the proverbial pooh.  You’ll be surprised by the results.   You might find it a little sobering.  I know I did.

It isn’t all bad news though because if you know how to consciously adopt new intentions then things will start to change for you.  You will start to gain the control of your directions and begin generating the outcomes that you may have been failing to achieve.  In his book “The Power of the Conscious Will” Alfred Mele builds a very strong case for choosing “effective intentions” in the present because they will alter your choices in the here and now and should by default stop the past dictating the future(3).

Don’t let your past dictate your present or future.  When things aren’t working out it’s time to decide what kind of a future you want and then determine that optimal set of intentions for getting it.  Be careful however if you think you can just say I want to be a rock star or a gabillionaire and think that’s all there is to it.  No that’s just the beginning.  There is a bit more to the whole setting of optimal intentions process than just wanting something and intending to get it.  To understand how to create optimal intentions goes beyond the scope of this simple blog.  I will touch on the how of optimal intentions in the future but for now have a look at your automatic responses and see where they are serving you and where they are sinking you.  Ask yourself is that really what I intended my outcome to be?


1.  Albarracin, D., & Wyer Jr, R. S. (2000). The cognitive impact of past behavior: influences on beliefs, attitudes, and future behavioral decisions. Journal of personality and social psychology79(1), 5.

2.  Krueger Jr, N. F., Reilly, M. D., & Carsrud, A. L. (2000). Competing models of entrepreneurial intentions. Journal of business venturing15(5), 411-432.

3.  Mele, A. R. (2009). Effective intentions: The power of conscious will. Oxford University Press.