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Simplify the Path to Intentional Change

Simplify the Path to Intentional Change

This year, instead of trying to over-engineer your path to change, simplify the situation and focus instead on intentional change, which emphasizes the combined power of motivation and clarity.

Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.

Every January, most of us unite under a common belief — that this year may be better than the last. New Year’s resolutions and intentions evoke feelings of hopefulness because they represent the very real possibility of change for all. However, they’re also known for notorious recoil. 

This year, instead of trying to over-engineer your path to change, simplify the situation and focus instead on intentional change, which emphasizes the combined power of motivation and clarity. Ultimately, true change is an identity shift that you achieve by doing something over and over. If you want to write a novel, your goal isn’t just to write more… It is to become a writer. To change is to become.

Intentional Change Theory (ICT)

Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, developed something referred to as Intentional Change Theory (ICT). Publishe in 2006 in the Journal of Management Development, ICT outlines five steps Boyatzis believes can bring about lasting, systematic change:

  1. Discover your ideal self
  2. Discover your real self
  3. Create your learning agenda
  4. Experiment with and practice new habits
  5. Get support


Discover your ideal self. 

This is the emotional driver behind intentional change and a huge source of personal motivation. Boyatzis actually considered it the most important form of motivation. It’s your vision of your future self — the person you want to become. Ask yourself:

  • Who do I want to be?
  • What do I want to achieve? 
  • What type of person do I want to be? 
  • What excites me?

Discover your real self.

This is a comprehensive sense of your present identity. It can be difficult to identify your own strengths and opportunities for growth, but it’s an extremely important step. If you skip it, you risk hindering your progress. In order to make realistic goals and craft a legitimate plan to achieve them, you have to understand the kind of person you are right now. Ask yourself:

  • What do I like most about myself? 
  • What do I like least?
  • What are my enduring traits?
  • What do I want to change?

Once you’re familiar with your real self, envision your ideal self again, and compare. Continue to do so throughout your journey to change. Visualize how you will get from point A to point B. 

Create your learning agenda or personal development plan. 

This is when you start to align your ideal and real selves by developing a vision for change. It’s driven by brainstorming, planning, and clarity. Ask yourself:

  • How will I achieve this change?
  • What steps must I take? What skills must I learn?
  • Who can I enlist to help me?
  • What specific resources might I need?
  • What is my learning style? 
  • Do I have any constraints or hidden commitments holding me back from specific goals?
  • Is there a sub-plan beneath my plan? How will my plan look in the context of my real life?
  • What past success have I had when making a change or learning a new skill? Can I include any of those strategies into my current plan?


Experiment with and practice new habits. 

This is when you actively build new patterns of behavior, but it may not happen overnight. Keep practicing your new skills and experiment with different modes of learning until you find what works for you. Shape your environment in a way that lends itself to your goals. Ask yourself:

  • Am I being intentional and consistent?
  • Am I looking for opportunities to practice and experiment?
  • Am I stepping back to reflect on what is working (or not)?
  • What has my journey looked like thus far?

If you’re being intentional but still find yourself struggling, take a look at your daily, action-based habits. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, suggests that clarity is more important in this case than motivation.

In one of Clear’s studies, there were several groups tracking their exercise routine with the goal being to exercise more regularly. They all received a presentation on the benefits of working out. Then, the control group was simply asked to track their workouts. The second had the added motivation of reading more material on the benefits of exercise. The third group had to formulate a clear plan for when and where they would exercise each week. They completed the following sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

The added motivation had no meaningful impact, but 91% of the third group exercised at least once a week — more than twice the normal rate. This strategy of being specific is applicable to any goal. For instance, you might be aiming to write a book, in which case you would decide to partake in at least [X MINUTES] of writing time on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE] for the greatest chance of success

Get support. 

For anyone in the process of change, you may need support from your team to minimize distractions. The people on your “team” — friends, family, co-workers — can help if you communicate and they understand your goals. For example, maybe your friend or neighbor watches your kids once a week so you can dedicate more time to your learning agenda.

Alongside and commingled with your support system, I highly recommend a cheering section! Regardless of whether these people take an active role in your effort to change, they care for and encourage you every step of the way. At the end of the day, far-reaching support makes us feel good. Remember, you don’t have to do it all on your own.

This year, don’t get discouraged by anyone who says change is impossible, or even by your own tendencies to fight it. Instead, focus on the steps of ICT, and if you’re dealing with a series of hidden commitments or an immunity to change, revisit our October blog: Find Your Way Forward When Change is Elusive

As James Clear says, “Every action is a vote for you want to be.” So, make 2020 your year to become… Well, anything!

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