Behind any action we take, there’s a superficial goal, and a deeper, underlying goal that we can discover if we look for it.

Let’s say I happened to go outside at 5:25 PM on Saturday, September 9, 2023, and I happened to take a five-minute walk down a street named Amethyst Way in the town of Pleasantville in Western Utopia, Somewhere, USA. What was my goal in doing that?

Maybe I had been sitting on the couch for too long and I wanted to breathe some fresh air and move around a bit.

But what was my underlying goal in moving around?

I wanted to exercise my body.

And what was my underlying goal in exercising my body?

I wanted to be healthy.

I still want to be healthy.

Look at what happened here. Just by asking “What was my underlying goal?” a few times in a row, I’ve discovered a timeless goal that motivated a specific action that I took at a specific time, in a specific place.

Being healthy is a timeless goal. It’s timeless in the context of my own life, because I’ll always possess this goal as long as I live. Whether or not I act in accordance with this goal on each opportunity, I’ll always want to be healthy. I’ll always prefer health to illness.

Being healthy is also timeless in the context of human civilization, because this goal would have made sense to any person living on the planet one-thousand years ago, and we can assume it will still make sense to any person living one-thousand years from now. Of course, the concept of “health” and the words that refer to health might differ across eras and societies, but the distinction between health and illness is fundamental enough that it would mean something to anyone, living anywhere, at any time.


Now what is the value of identifying the timeless goal behind any specific action we’ve taken or plan to take? If I go for a short walk outdoors one evening because I want to move around a bit, why should I bother reminding myself that my action serves the timeless goal of being healthy? How does it help me to spell that out?

Well, I did take a walk with my mom one evening the other month. She was in very low spirits because of recent and deep losses that our family has experienced. She was feeling too tired to walk far so we turned back after a few minutes. When we got home, she apologized to me: the walk had been too short, she said. It had been worthless, basically – a waste of time – and we might as well not have gone out at all. I said: “Wait! We took that walk for health. It was a little thing we did for health. Doing something for health, even if it’s just a little thing, can only be good for us. It’s certainly better than doing nothing.”

What was the purpose of the walk? If the purpose was only to get vigorous exercise and raise our heart rates, then we failed. If the purpose was only to achieve health once and for all, then we certainly failed.

But if the purpose of the walk was to take a small action in pursuit of the timeless goal of health, then we succeeded. We acted for health as opposed to not acting for health. And any time we act for health – if indeed our action furthers that timeless goal in some small way – then we should feel good about it. 

How do you manifest any timeless goal? By taking lots and lots of little actions in service of it. Some actions will be more consequential than others, but you keep going, you keep taking these actions. And how do you stay motivated to keep taking these actions? By giving yourself credit each time you take another one, and not regretting it. By noticing how each little action connects to the timeless goal.

So the walk I took with my mom is an example of how identifying one’s timeless goal can help reframe an action from seeming worthless to seeming valuable. A walk that’s so short as to feel like “a waste of time” is still worthwhile if we see it as part of a larger sequence of actions that are aimed at something bigger.

Here’s another example of a benefit – and also a pitfall – we can experience in trying to identify the timeless goal behind an everyday action:

Just a moment ago, I reached across my kitchen table to pick up a glass with water in it. I held the glass in my hand and took a sip. What was my underlying goal in doing that?

The glass was almost empty and I wanted to finish the water so I could clean the glass and put it away.

What was my underlying goal in putting the glass away?

I wanted the table to be clean and free from clutter.

What was my underlying goal in clearing the table?

I wanted to bring order to my living space.

What was my underlying goal in bringing order to my living space?

I want to feel comfortable in my surroundings. I want to feel at home. I want to love my home.

Surely, wanting to feel at home is a timeless goal, and yes, this goal did play a role in motivating me to finish the water and put the glass away. But this example shows how there can be more than one timeless goal behind any action, and it’s easy to get sidetracked on the less salient ones. It takes some thought and some finesse to arrive at most important, the most salient among all the timeless goals that we could identify in any particular scenario.

Here, I’ve gotten sidetracked because I’ve focused on why I took that last sip of water from the glass. Instead, I could have looked at why I poured the glass in the first place. What was my underlying goal in beginning to drink the water?

I was thirsty. I wanted to quench my thirst.

And why did I care about quenching my thirst?

Being thirsty is uncomfortable. I wanted to feel better by giving my body what it needs to function.

Why did I want to give my body what it needs?

I want to be healthy.

Although my last sip was motivated by a desire to put the cup away, so I could clear the table, so I could restore order to my living space, so I could feel at home, the more significant reason why I was drinking water was that I want to be healthy. Same reason why my mom and I took that walk. Same reason why I brush my teeth every day.

Now what benefit do I get for identifying the timeless goal behind drinking a glass of water? Isn’t it obvious that we need to consume fluids to stay alive? 

Yes, it’s obvious, but if I see the water as a nuisance that I’m trying to be done with so I can clean the table, then I’ll be less motivated to pour myself another glass. If instead I take the time to remember that I’m drinking water in furtherance of the timeless goal of being healthy, then I have the chance to think about health from a broader perspective. What else am I doing for health? Yes, I just drank one glass of water, but maybe I’m not drinking as much water as I should be, and I can easily fix that if I just keep a full glass beside me as I work. By stopping to notice my primary intention behind drinking the one glass of water, I’m more likely to pour myself a second glass rather than to put the glass away.

Let’s close with a third example. A few days ago I was drinking from the same glass that held the water that I just talked about. But on this occasion, the fluid inside that glass was not water, it was beer. Now what was my underlying goal in reaching across the table to pick up that glass of beer and take a sip?

I was feeling physically tense because I had been sitting in a chair in front of a computer screen all day. And my mind was full of frustrating, anxious, stressful thoughts. I knew that the beer would make me feel more physically relaxed, and it would “take the edge off” my thoughts, putting me in a calmer, freer, slightly sillier, less grim and less severe frame of mind.

But what was my underlying goal in wanting a “buzz” – in wanting to feel more physically relaxed and mentally calm? What does it mean to experience a combination of physical ease and mental levity?

One way to describe this experience is a state of wellbeing, the same feeling that comes from being fit and grounded, the same feeling that comes from being healthy.

In a sense, “I want to be healthy” or at least “I want to feel healthy” was my hidden timeless motivation for drinking beer. Of course I wouldn’t say to myself “I’d like to feel healthy, and in order to achieve that feeling of health, I’m going to drink beer right now.” When I found myself drinking beer on this occasion, there were many superficial motivations I could have identified: I liked the taste, I liked the carbonation, I was feeling bored and I wanted a “reward” after a long day. Only by digging deeper and questioning my underlying motivation did I realize that a feeling of health is what I was really seeking. This example shows how timeless goals that motivate our actions may be quite surprising to us when we manage to identify them.

This example also shows that just because we are acting in pursuit of a timeless goal, we might not be taking an effective action, a productive action, a good action, a right action in service of that goal. I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of drinking beer in this space, but of course there are many reasons to question whether drinking beer is a helpful thing to do in the pursuit of health.

Someone might say, “I want to be financially secure.” That’s a timeless goal. It could motivate them to work nine-to-five and save $100 a month over fifty years. But it could also motivate them to commit money laundering or rob a bank. The goal and the means of fulfilling it are totally different things, and the timelessness of a goal has no bearing on whether we’ll try to fulfill it in an effective way or a counterproductive way, a wholesome or an unfortunate or even criminal way – that’s up to us.


So we’ve seen three examples that illustrate three different benefits we can get from identifying the timeless goals behind the specific actions we take every day.

First: Identifying our timeless goal can help us feel more appreciative and more proud of a little action we took, like a short walk around the block in service of health, when we see that it still furthers the goal.

Second: Identifying our timeless goal can give us the motivation to do more of something that’s furthering the goal, like drinking more water in service of health, instead of putting our water glass away.

Third: Identifying our timeless goal can help us understand when our actions are might be counterproductive in achieving that goal, like if we’re drinking beer because ultimately, we want to feel healthy.

Once we’ve identified the timeless goals behind our everyday actions, and once we’ve confirmed that those goals are truly timeless for us – that we’ll always have those goals and always act on them in some way, as long as we live – then we can start referring to them as timeless intentions.

Rather than saying “I want to be healthy,” we can say “I intend to be healthy. I’m going for a walk because I intend to be healthy.” The meaning is largely the same, but by saying “I intend” instead of “I want,” we’re codifying the fact that our desire is backed by action. As living beings, we’re in flight, we’re in motion. We’re not just sitting around wanting things, but we’re engaged in an ongoing series of ventures and adventures as we forever work to fulfill our timeless intentions. 


My ideas about timeless intention are inspired by the work of technologist and angel investor Bill Warner. In 2010, Bill Warner developed a methodology for helping startup founders build their startups “from the heart.” 

Entrepreneurs often prepare elevator pitches that are full of buzzwords and flashy promises. Bill’s idea was to encourage entrepreneurs to identify the “timeless intention” behind their business or technological invention and describe it in simple language. Bill would ask an entrepreneur to explain how they wanted to help their audience, their customers, their “people” through the invention they created. He asked them to describe their helping intention in universal language that a grade-schooler could understand. And he asked them to connect this intention behind their business idea with an intention that they were manifesting in other parts of their life, outside business. “I want to help people find love.” “I want to help people stay organized.” “I want to help people see the world.” If the entrepreneur was actually doing those things for their friends or acquaintances in some way outside of the startup venture, then their plan to manifest it through the startup would be more credible. Bill’s timeless intention for his methodology was “I want to help people follow their hearts.” 

It’s been 13 years since I first met Bill and participated in his “Anything Goes” lab, a startup incubator space that he was running at the time. Back then, I recorded some of my thoughts in an essay called Intention In Entrepreneurship.

Life happened, and some threads lay dormant for a while before we pick them back up. The idea of “timeless intention” has been in my mind over these 13 years and I believe that it applies far outside of the startup world. Indeed, you don’t need to be undertaking a big venture of any sort in order to find use for the concept. We can uncover timeless intentions behind the little, mundane actions we take everyday, and there’s great value in doing so. That’s what I have tried to illustrate in this essay.

Here’s another essay where I talk about the benefits of identifying our intentions. I talk about how knowing our timeless intention before we start a project can help us experience fulfillment after we’re done with the project, even if the details of the project don’t work out the way we hope: Saved By Intention

Comments ༄