If you’re tired of living your life on autopilot, intentional living might be the answer.
Many of us coast through life seemingly unchoosing and are suddenly surprised to find we’re not where we want to be.
In this article, we’ll to explore how to regain a semblance of autonomy.
Let’s dive in.
What is intentional living?
Intentional living is the act of living consciously according to predefined values, beliefs and ethics.
It may be a personal or family choice or one made in concert with family or a wider group such as an intentional living community.
There are various benefits in transitioning to this lifestyle.
Let’s see why you’d want to try.
Why is it important?
Society can often make us feel like we’re programmed to act and behave in a certain way.
This process of indoctrination starts in childhood with family and friends as we learn how to become a functioning member of society.
While it’s a useful process which greases the social machine, such conditioning can limit our personal growth.
For example, you might be living in a certain area or pursuing a particular career, not because you’ve always wanted to, but because they were the socially acceptable choices among your peers.
It may feel like you’re living on autopilot.
Intentional living allows us to dispense with apathy, examine our existence and question any false assumptions before embarking on a path which feels more authentic.
What does it look like in practice?
In practice, three core elements of intentional living emerge:
If we’ve previously coasted on autopilot, unquestioning in our assumptions and consequent behaviour, the first phase of this lifestyle is bringing greater awareness to our reality.
There are various methods to achieve this, but however it’s achieved, emphasising what matters to us most requires conscious attention.
Society is speeding up. Instantaneous global communication attacks us with a daily firehose of information.
Whether through stress and burnout, intentional living commonly marks a turning point in our relationship with time and self-inflicted busyness.
Setting boundaries on productivity-fuelled days can bring a renewed sense of tranquillity to fraught minds.
Intentional living often involves simplification and paring down to bring greater focus to less, investing our limited resources in higher-value activities.
Such simple living might include the examination of our consumption, such as adopting an approach like minimalism or pursuing hobbies which provide the greatest emotional return.
When we’re young we in growth mode, greedily experimenting with life and collecting experiences to expand our mental model of reality.
It’s a time of great learning and expansion, extracting and incorporating useful elements into our working paradigm of the world.
By its nature this process is messy. It has to be.
Without a fully formed belief system, we must assimilate enough data to shape our personalities.
As we age, our experiences solidify into an improved understanding of our environment and we emerge, chrysalis like, into more defined value systems.
In this way, we apply our experimental learnings and live more congruently with our findings.
This is where the seeds of intentional living are sown.
That’s not to say that you emerge from the life furnace like a bronze statue, forever forged.
There’s plenty of wiggle room for further growth and evolution of our ideals.
Rather, it allows us to apply the Pareto Principle to experimentation and consolidation.
Whereas in our youthful, experimentation phase, we invested 80% of our energy investigating and 20% consolidating, after developing a more comprehensive worldview in later life, the ratio might reverse.
You still want to permit room for growth-minded activities but you’re concurrently living by a tried and tested compass.
Many of us remain trapped, lacking guiding principles to guide our decision making.
Rather than creating a life plan driven by meaning and purpose, we’re beset by confusion and never fully commit.
We coast, guided randomly by the gales of life rather than charting a course of personal significance.
People in this phase often feel stuck and complain about their results.
When we don’t take responsibility and make choices, life tends to choose for us, whether we like it or not.
Intentional living places us back in the driving seat.
Benefits of intentional living
Making the decision to act in accordance with considered values provides a significant motivation boost and creates the fuel needed for various growth projects.
Such effects are often visible when becoming intentional about our health, exercising more and eating healthier.
The enthusiasm derived from these new values is often contagious, forming cornerstone habits, which subsequently spill into other areas of our life.
Intentional living is often deeply entwined with commitment.
By focusing on a certain path, rather than hopping from one opportunity to the next, we exponentially improve our chances of success.
What we focus on grows.
Not only can we enjoy the process of mastering our craft but also the external rewards that result.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
William Hutchison Murray
Even if the results aren’t what you expect and you’re not met with immediate external success, you know that your decisions have been thoroughly considered.
You’ve done everything in your power to craft a good life and the rest is out of your hands.
You’ve regained control of your life and, assuming responsibility for your actions, any previous sense of aimlessness evaporates.
When you take personal responsibility for intentional living, you place a flag on your castle, broadcasting who you are and what you represent.
You attract like minds who share the same mission and values.
Your social circle becomes aligned with your deeper principles, often forming the foundation for intentional living communities.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of this way of life is the feeling that you’re living congruently with your deeper values.
Humans hate cognitive dissonance and the sensation that we’re out of sync, resulting in significant and prolonged psychic tension.
Someone who inherently sees themself as a good person but acts dishonestly finds it hard to reconcile their self-image with their daily behaviour.
In contrast, intentional living allows us to realign how we move through the world.
How to live consciously
So the question is, where are you in your journey?
Are you still in the experimentation phase or have you established a robust modus operandi?
The great thing about this juicy little life is that you can try different approaches on for size and effectiveness.
Let’s see how…
Much like a successful organisation, the first step in intentional living is to define a mission statement.
This could be a simple sentence identifying what you imagine would be a life well-lived.
There are various methods to facilitate this, such as the deathbed or eulogy thought experiment, whereby you fictionally cast yourself into the future and imagine potential regrets which guide your present-day actions accordingly.
The next step is to outline your value system, drawing on your fundamental understanding of the world.
Examples of your important values might be curiosity or kindness, which guide your decisions and behaviour appropriately.
They create a why for your what, connecting your present-day actions to well-considered, codified principles.
Think of them as standards of living.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Viktor E. Frankl
Goals and daily actions
From your values, it’s possible to enter the territory of goals, processes and daily behaviours required for each stage of the framework.
If you need a more detailed understanding of how this works, it dovetails nicely with two other articles on life planning and life purpose.
Check ‘em out.
In some instances, we can rely on genetic heuristics to guide our intentional living behaviour.
After all, they’ve been optimised over millennia for survival and reproduction and although they take effort to implement, we recognise their veracity on a deep fundamental level.
Life-enhancing shortcuts might include exercise, a nostrum for most modern ills, or developing a social support network to improve our wellbeing.
In such instances, we can adopt intentional behaviours without reinventing the wheel.
Here are some examples of tools I utilise to cultivate my intentions:
My own exploration of intentional living started with meditation.
It’s hard to know how you want to live before clearing the muddy waters of the mind and gaining clarity.
Meditation is a daily intentional living practice that infuses every other activity with increased presence and mindfulness.
Knowing the foundational effect that wholesome food exerts on all other areas of life, I decided to give vegetarianism a whirl.
Not least because it forced me to incorporate more fruit and vegetables into my meals.
I’ve also adopted the practice of intermittent fasting, with promising research extolling its benefits.
Humans are born to move and pretty much everyone knows they need to exercise more.
After growing up playing sport, I let my habits slide, but over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly conscious about re-incorporating exercise into my daily routine.
If you’re a desk worker, such an intention is vital for a healthy mind and body.
I’m a hit and miss journaler, but when I do it, I feel better.
Getting the mind demons down on paper liberates mental space and fortifies us with the discipline needed to stick to our intentions, even when the going gets tough.
If you want a gold star, combine this practice with a little gratitude.
Leveraging your curiosity can infuse your personal and work life with more meaning.
An example might be undertaking a side project to learn or showcase skills which could one day evolve into something greater.
Such was the inspiration for launching this humble little website and developing my penmanship.
Intentional living is really about self-reflection and understanding one’s raison d’être.
Whilst individual values differ, consciously committing to your path and aligning your behaviour accordingly will pay dividends.
A harmonious, fulfilling life.