Every day we are assaulted by a barrage of choices, most of which we never take the time to reflect upon. The majority of us don’t seem to have much of a moral or ethical code to live by, even if we ostensibly have some religious affiliation. As a result, our choices – and in turn, our daily lives – are often random, thoughtless, and contradictory.
This is where intentional living comes in.
Living intentionally isn’t about subscribing to any specific set of rules or guidelines for behavior; rather, it’s about deciding how you personally wish to organize your life, and then conscientiously taking control of all of those little mindless choices throughout the day in order to align them with your values. This is how we develop true integrity.
Consider a mundane task like choosing something to eat for lunch. With no ethical compass, I am lost in a sea of billboards, flashing marquees, and half-remembered corporate jingles.
But when I decide to eliminate fast food and industrial meat products from my diet, and instead value a home-cooked meal above all else, then my decision becomes a no-brainer: I’ll make my own lunch, and any meat I use will be locally and humanely produced.
This example underscores one crucial feature of our daily lives: we are immersed in a culture. Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with the direction it’s heading in, we are a part of it. And when we do not make conscientious choices in our daily lives, the “default” choices we are left with are generally those dictated to us by our culture.
And what kinds of choices does our culture give us? McDonald’s or Burger King; doctor or lawyer; Democrat or Republican; Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber... Are these the options you want to choose from?
Designing your own lifestyle means understanding that if you don’t make decisions on your own terms, they’ll be made with someone else’s set of standards, and you probably won’t be happy with the results.
How to Live Intentionally
Intentional living can be thought of as a four-step process of self-assessment: defining your values, evaluating your actions, aligning actions with values, and reassessing regularly. It’s worth your effort to sit down and actually write these things out so you can revisit your notes later.
1. Define Your Values
What is most important to you? What motivates you to make the decisions that you do?
Consider your core beliefs, and really take the time to spell them out. Don't be afraid to write down whatever comes to mind; turn off all filters.
Some examples of things from my list would be “Eating locally and sustainably produced food”, “Holding a job that involves working outside”, and “Taking care of my own needs as often as possible”. But don’t let my choices steer yours too much – this list is for you, after all.
2. Evaluate Your Actions
Once you’ve clearly defined your values, it’s time to take a step back and look at where you are now. Do your actions align with your values? Where do they contradict?
Take my “eating locally” example from above – these days I get most of my produce from either the farm where I work, or else one of our local farmer’s markets, so overall I’d say that I do a good job acting in accord with my beliefs.
But I just can’t seem to let go of bananas, even though I know full well just how terrible the industry surrounding them is. They definitely couldn’t be considered “local” to me, or “sustainable” to anyone.
I’ll stop right here and note that there should be no judgment in this process. The goal here isn’t to beat ourselves up about all of our perceived failings – we are simply observing the things we value and the things we do, and then pinpointing the places where they don’t seem to line up.
3. Align Your Actions With Your Values
Next is the “easier said than done” step of the process: deciding how to change your habits so that your behavior reflects your beliefs. This requires equal parts diligence, patience, and forgiveness.
Returning to my example, if I want to fully align my actions with my values, I should stop purchasing bananas and seek a local, sustainable alternative. This isn’t easy – local, chemical-free fruit is really hard to come by where I live, so I buy what I can when it’s available, but I stick to bananas when I don’t have another choice. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best I can do with the situation in front of me.
This step is where the “transitional” aspect of this blog’s ethos comes into play; that is to say, whatever changes you make are not going to come about overnight. That’s why you’ve got to be diligent about your daily choices, patient with yourself when you don’t or aren’t able to do things differently, and forgiveness for yourself when things don’t work out.
4. Reassess Regularly
When making changes in your life, it’s crucial to reassess your situation on a regular basis. Every few months (or weeks, to start), come back to the notes you jotted down in the first three steps of this exercise and evaluate the progress you’ve made.
Again, no judgment! If you’ve been doing your best to make the changes that you settled on, then there’s no sense in punishing yourself for the places where you may be falling short.
One key component of this final step is being open to adjusting your goals when necessary. You might find that the values you’ve outlined for yourself just don’t match up with your daily habits, and if you really don’t want to change those habits, then you’re going to have to adjust your values in order to minimize the stress and frustration of cognitive dissonance.
The most important part of this whole process is a willingness to be unflinchingly honest with yourself. This is your life we’re talking about here, and if you can’t be honest about what you truly value and how you truly act, then all of the self-assessment in the world won’t help you.
If you struggle through this process of defining and aligning your intentions, don’t fret – we all do. Living intentionally is simple in theory, but it isn’t always easy.
If you start to question your reasons for choosing this path over the predetermined rat race of the status quo, remember the wise words of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Examine yourself, and don’t be afraid of what you might find. Know that with the right intentions, you can make meaningful changes to your daily life, and in turn, your worldview.