Can we all stop using the word intentional?

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Peo­ple who use the word inten­tion­al usu­al­ly mean well. They say things like let’s do this task inten­tion­al­ly, or I noticed you did this, was that inten­tion­al? While I under­stand what they mean, this word is vague . . . I think we should stop using it.

What people mean when they say “intentional”

When peo­ple say INTENTIONAL, they mean, did you PLAN to do that? Was that on PURPOSE? Did you spend time in advanced to decide you were going to do what you did?
[guestpost]This is just one arti­cle from my series “Words I Hate.” To see all of the “Words I Hate” go here.[/guestpost]
Or peo­ple come from the neg­a­tive per­spec­tive: It didn’t seem like your actions were INTENTIONAL. In oth­er words, it didn’t seem like you spent any time think­ing or prepar­ing for this task or etc.

But why not just say—was this or that planned or did you work on this in advance? These alter­na­tive phras­es are more spe­cif­ic and can lead to a pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion to talk about HOW you planned or the DURATION of time required to pre­pare your action.

Say­ing some­thing was or wasn’t inten­tion­al doesn’t imme­di­ate­ly pro­vide enough help­ful advice on what to do next. You have to spend time decod­ing how much inten­tion­al­i­ty was “put in” to the vague task, rather than dis­cussing con­crete items like time, orga­ni­za­tion tech­niques, sys­tems, tools, and sched­ul­ing.

Dictionary definitions of “intentional” and related words…

Here are some com­mon def­i­n­i­tions of the word inten­tion­al, intend­ed, and inten­tion:

  1. Inten­tion­al: done by inten­tion or design (Mer­ri­am-Web­ster)
  2. Inten­tion­al: done with inten­tion or on pur­pose; intend­ed (
  3. Intend­ed: expect­ed to be such in the future (Mer­ri­am-Web­ster)
  4. Intend­ed: pur­posed; designed (
  5. Inten­tion: a deter­mi­na­tion to act in a cer­tain way (Mer­ri­am-Web­ster)
  6. Inten­tion: an act or instance of deter­min­ing men­tal­ly upon some action or result. (

All of these def­i­n­i­tions imply that the inten­tion­al person—the per­son who intend­ed to do something—or some­one with inten­tions, all thought (used their MIND) to pre­pare or plan for the future.

The problem with “intentional”

Here’s my biggest beef with inten­tion­al: What hap­pens when you INTENTIONALLY use your mind to plan and do some­thing, but then “the thing” (task, goal, result, etc.) doesn’t turn out quite the way you want­ed it to? Here’s an exam­ple:

Example: cooking a meal for your spouse

What if you inten­tion­al­ly plan to pre­pare a deli­cious, home-cooked meal for your spouse? You buy the fresh­est ingre­di­ents… pol­ish the best sil­ver­ware and chi­na… iron the per­fect table­cloth… come home ear­ly from work… cook the meal for hours… clean the kitchen… light the can­dles… cue the music… but as you’re eat­ing with your loved one, the food doesn’t TASTE quite as good as you want­ed???

Seri­ous­ly! You were inten­tion­al, right? You planned, prepared—did every­thing RIGHT. Accord­ing to the dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion of inten­tion­al, you DESIGNED the meal, you PURPOSEFULLY took the time to make the meal, you DETERMINED your action… but what hap­pens when the action—the result—isn’t exact­ly what you were going for?

To say you “lacked inten­tion­al­i­ty” would be false, because you spent plen­ty of time, thought, and cog­ni­tive space to make some­thing hap­pen — but when the result doesn’t align with “what you were going for,” your lev­el of inten­tion­al­i­ty doesn’t mean any­thing!

What are you going for?

I often ask myself, “what am I going for” to assess things I’m plan­ning. If I am going for a deli­cious, home-cooked meal for my wife, the TASTE of the steak and pota­toes is just as impor­tant as the music, can­dles, and flow of the evening. If the steak is dry and has no fla­vor, sure it will be a good sto­ry to tell our­selves when we’re old­er, but my inten­tion was to have a per­fect­ly cooked meal—not just food on a plate.

[share­able cite=]Asking your­self “what am I going for” is a more spe­cif­ic way to deter­mine what you’re try­ing to achieve from your goal.[/shareable]

Ask­ing your­self “what am I going for” is a more spe­cif­ic (and CLEAR) way to deter­mine what you’re try­ing to achieve from set­ting your goal. This is usu­al­ly where the word inten­tion­al is brought in.

I want to be inten­tion­al about pur­su­ing my goal.” OK—great! I agree. But what if you ARE inten­tion­al . . . but you’re unhap­py with the results? At that point, it doesn’t mat­ter how inten­tion­al you were. If the result does not align with what you “real­ly” want­ed to do, it doesn’t mat­ter what your inten­tions are. You didn’t cook a good steak. You failed.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]It doesn’t mat­ter what your inten­tions are. You didn’t cook a good steak. You failed.[/shareable]

Questions to identify what you’re going for

Here are some ques­tions I think through when I’m iden­ti­fy­ing what I’m going for:

  1. What am I going for?
  2. What would ruin this com­plete­ly?
  3. How can I avoid or pre­vent stuff going wrong?
  4. What does good enough look like? (Source)
  5. How much time do I need to pre­pare, test, and pre­view?

Focus on your plan and the objective results

Rather than spend­ing hours ana­lyz­ing how you could have been “more inten­tion­al,” I say look at the way you planned, how much time you spent, how focused you were dur­ing your prep, and how you could tweak your plan­ning items to ensure each aspect of your goal are met.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Focus on the details your plan, not a vague assess­ment of “intentionality.”[/shareable]

Side story about music for dinner/events

To con­tin­ue the din­ner anal­o­gy, music can often make or break an event. As a DJ and music-lover, I know this. You can put on a free Pan­do­ra sta­tion at the last minute—but are you antic­i­pat­ing com­mer­cials, are you antic­i­pat­ing the inter­net cut­ting out, are you aware of the weird live-ver­sions of songs?

Not all playlists are cre­at­ed equal! I rec­om­mend using Spo­ti­fy pre­mi­um with the cross­fade fea­ture so each song flows per­fect­ly into the next. Use offline mode so con­nec­tiv­i­ty isn’t an issue. If music is impor­tant to you for your next event, don’t spend time being “intentional”—but actu­al­ly pre­pare the right tools, sys­tems, and time you need in order to exe­cute on your GOAL of set­ting the per­fect mood.

Takeaways/ Solution

Because of the rea­sons I’ve intro­duced here, I think the word inten­tion­al isn’t help­ful to use. But if you can’t escape the word, con­sid­er tak­ing some time to dig deep­er and clar­i­fy what someone—or yourself—really mean when they talk about inten­tion­al­i­ty. See if you can get con­crete, visu­al answers. Use sim­ple lan­guage.

Use (more plain?) language!

Sim­ple lan­guage (plain lan­guage) doesn’t mean some­thing is not com­plex. Sim­ple lan­guage is more clear and iden­ti­fies the prob­lem, solu­tion, and goal. Here are some addi­tion­al ques­tions to ask oth­ers and your­self on your path to speci­fici­ty:

  1. Did you plan for XYZ to hap­pen?
  2. Did you work on this in advance? If so, for how long? Was that enough time?
  3. How did you go about plan­ning this?
  4. What tools did you use? (Paper and pen­cil? Lap­top? Soft­ware?)
  5. Can I see how you planned this out?
  6. How many hours did you block off?

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Simple lan­guage doesn’t mean some­thing isn’t complex.[/shareable]

[reminder]What do you think? How do you talk about things you intend­ed to do?[/reminder]

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