Can we all stop using the word intentional?

Suggestions for how to speak of doing things on purpose

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?

This is just one article from my series “Words I Hate.” To see all of the “Words I Hate” go here.

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.

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.

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.

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 plain…er (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?

Question: What do you think? How do you talk about things you intended to do? You can leave a comment by clicking here.