By Lori Ryland, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, CAADC, CCS-M, chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers
These days when you hear the phrase “live with intention” you may associate it with something that just a few years ago most people would have considered New Age or Woo-Woo. However, with the increasing popularity of movements to declutter your life or identify possessions that spark joy or embrace the minimalist approach to life, the concept of living intentionally, or living an intentional life, you may have begun to reconsider your initial impressions.
You may wonder if there’s value in all this new stuff. You get that reducing clutter in your life and learning to live more simply are not bad ideas at all. They can help you take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the workaday world and focus on the things that improve your life, rather than stand between you and a simple feeling of contentment and happiness.
But what about living intentionally?
What does that really mean?
Here’s a spoiler: all you really need to know is in the title of this article. Intentional living means aligning your values with your actions on a daily basis.
And here’s something else: there is nothing new, at all, about intentional living. It’s been part of the human experience for thousands of years. Literally. Our earliest examples of intentional living are the intentional communities associated with religion: nuns and monks of various spiritual traditions living in nunneries, cloisters, or monasteries in order to become closer to their concept of the divine.
Fast forward to the 1960s, when intentional communities took on a different flavor, but with very similar goals: individuals and families escaped what they considered the rat race in order to live with others who shared the same values and goals for living they did. While that movement didn’t last very long, it didn’t disappear: you can see examples of intentional communities in cities large and small, in the form of co-ops, co-housing, and group living situations designed to enhance social connection and improve overall quality of life.
But that’s not what this article is really about. This article is about how to live your life with intention – and you don’t have to move to a co-op to do it. It’s all about how to incorporate intention into your personal, daily life.
Self-Check In: Do I Live Intentionally?
Most of us move through our days on autopilot.
We barely notice what’s happening around us.
Think about it.
When we take our kids to the park, do we get down in the dirt and play with them? When we push them on the swing, where are our thoughts? Do we focus on the joy we feel just being with our kid, and how it feels to push them back and forth as they laugh?
Our mind is probably on the bills we need to pay. Or our annoying boss. Or what time we need to leave the park to beat traffic to get home in time to start dinner.
We go through our days reacting to this or handling that with little consideration as to whether our daily actions support our values. We rarely audit our daily behavior to ensure we’re moving in the direction of our true purpose in life.
That’s what living intentionally changes. We stop living on autopilot and take the controls in our two hands and direct exactly where we go and how we get there.
Living with intention means we engage in daily practice of living consciously and deliberately, according to our goals and values.
What Does That Mean in Practical Terms?
Here are a few examples of how people live with intention:
- They simplify their home environment by eliminating items that are unnecessary.
- They engage in physical practices like mindful yoga. Yoga teaches them to be mindful of their bodies, the sounds in the room when they practice, and granular aspects of the environment like the feeling of the mat touching their body, or the temperature in the room. All these things help them live in the present moment, which is an important part of intentional living.
- They change the way they eat. Some people become vegan or vegetarian because they feel that better aligns with their overall values, and helps contribute to improving the world. For them, changing how they eat is an example of Gandhi’s advice to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
When you think about intentionality in your life, it means Identifying ways in which your day-to-day actions can better align with values you consider important. In addition to the three things I list above, this could include spiritual practice, volunteering for a community organization, or simply visiting or helping your friends and relatives more often and more consistently.
The goal is to identify what matters to you and incorporate it more fully into your life.
How Does Intentional Living Improve Life?
Intentional living helps us live with a greater sense of purpose. This increases our overall sense of wellbeing and feeling of fulfillment. When we increase our general wellbeing, we decrease our feelings of anxiety and depression. Which means intentional living improves our mental health, which, in turn, has a positive effect on everything else, including our relationships, our work productivity, and our physical health.
An article published in Time Magazine in 2017 identifies research that shows living in intentional communities can help decrease:
- Cancer risk
- Cardiovascular illness
- Chronic pain
- Recovery time from minor wounds and illnesses
In addition, intentional living is associated with improved immune function, less cognitive decline and fewer instances of Alzheimer’s disease. Granted, these findings come from people living in intentional communities, and may be related to the benefits of a positive and supportive social network. However, those things are not unrelated: people who live in intentional communities value positive social contact, and choose to live in an environment that aligns with their values. Therefore, their intentionality leads to a wide range of positive results in their lives.
You can choose to live intentionally, too – and you don’t have to move to an intentional community to do it.
How Can You Live with More Intention?
There are practical steps you can take right now to live with more intention in your personal life. You can implement one or all of the five steps below without making big changes in the default parameters that guide most of your daily choices. Meaning these choices don’t mean running off and joining the circus, going to live in a convent, or doing your personal version of Eat, Pray, Love (although do that if you can). These are small changes you can make, starting today.
- Cultivate Mindfulness. If you’re not familiar with mindfulness in your daily life, let’s take a simple example: eating a meal. It’s something everyone does several times a day. Here’s one way to have a mindful meal:
- Sit somewhere you can focus on the meal. A kitchen table, dining room table, or a nice spot next to a window.
- Turn the TV off and put your phone/tablet/connected watch somewhere else.
- Pay attention to the experience of eating and enjoying the meal. If you’re alone, focus on your five senses. Taste – obviously – but also scents, textures, and how your food looks. Sound is important, too: does your meal sizzle? Do the sounds of your utensil on the plate distract or add to the experience of the meal?
- If you’re dining with someone, give them your full attention. Be fully present in the conversation and check in with yourself to see if that enhances your experience of the meal.
- As you eat, of course your mind will wander. That happens to everyone, from mindfulness veterans to beginners. What matters is that you bring it back to the present moment when it does wander. Return your attention to the food, the feel of the chair beneath you, your feet on the floor, and the gift of a healthy meal. Remind yourself that this moment is the only moment you can live – and you’re grateful for it.
- Simplify your approach to how you work and how you get things done.
- Eliminate multitasking.
- Focus on what’s in front of you.
- Yes – the phone might ring, your kids may interrupt, or you might look out the window and see you dog got out of the backyard. Whatever happens, take care of that if you need to – and only that – then return to your task.
- It’s possible to eliminate multitasking and still get more than one thing accomplished in a specific time period. The key is that when you switch tasks, actually switch tasks, then return to, or move on, to your next task.
- Cultivate gratitude in relationships.
- In your relationships with others, focus on truly seeing them for who they are, not who you want them to be.
- When they talk, engage in active listening. Look at them while they talk. If it’s a debate, sure, plan your reply. But if they’re sharing as a friend, listen for the sake of listening and try to avoid planning a reply.
- Tell all the people you love, like, or even appreciate how grateful you are for the connection.
- Commit to resolving issues collaboratively, honestly, with empathy and compassion.
- Try a values exercise.
- In a values exercise, you determine which values are most important to you. Make a clear list that you can hold, see, and think about.
- For each value on your list, reflect on whether your actions reflect that value. If they do, that’s great. If they don’t, think about how to bring your actions into agreement with your values.
- If you find your values and actions are truly mismatched, then establish clear, achievable goals – framed in terms of behavior and action – to move into the direction of a values-driven life.
- Consider your possessions and the material things in your life.
- Take inventory. Make sure the majority of the things you own are things you either value or require.
- Find something to do with the things that you don’t need or don’t truly value. This can help you, by simplifying your environment. IF you give things away, they can help others who may truly value something you do not.
- Eliminating the physical and psychological clutter in your life helps you focus on what matters and live a more intentional life.
I recommend going through this list and implementing any of these ideas you can. Taken individually – with the exception of the values exercise – these changes are small. Fair warning, though: when you make these small changes, disproportionately large improvements may follow. When you see that happen, you may decide to live intentionally in all areas of life, which will radically change your day-to-day experience for the better.