How we can live a purposeful life
By Tina Hallis | Illustrations by Stacey Anderson
Sometimes it can feel like your life is living you instead of the other way around. Maybe there’s too much to do and no time to pause and consider what you actually want to do. But, there’s a way out of this vicious cycle. With some self-reflection and by taking steps every day, it is very possible to live our lives intentionally and on purpose.
To really understand how to live life intentionally, it’s useful to consider what it feels like to live without intention. A helpful analogy is comparing it to riding the bumper cars at the fair. Other drivers are constantly bumping into us, pushing us every which way. We’re continuously reacting to each collision, backing up, turning around, just in time to get rammed again. This can be fun if it’s just a game and we’re not trying to go anywhere. But if we continually let our decisions, actions and emotions be reactions to what life throws at us, we’re just surviving instead of choosing our life.
Don’t be misled. Living with intention is not about getting it right every time or being perfect. It’s a direction we aim for so we can get better at choosing what we want to think, feel and do. There are many challenges that get in our way. There’s the constant pressure to fit in and to please others. There are frustrations and obstacles that we can’t control that seem to push us off our path. We have life experiences that leave us cautious and wounded.
And then there is our strong survival instinct. Since prehistoric times, it has kept us alive by making sure we focus on any dangers or problems so we can protect ourselves in the future. In today’s world, it can feel like our minds are antennas that constantly bounce between channels focused on bad news, drama and worry. It’s not easy to take control of the remote and change the station to something positive.
The great news is that we have the ability to overcome these hurdles. We can choose how we respond despite these negative influences. Here are some tips to make that choice easier.
CLARIFY YOUR VALUES
First, get clear on what’s important to you. Think about causes you’re passionate about, key values that you want to uphold in your life or characteristics and traits that reflect your best self. These could include anything from wanting to be kinder and more patient with others to being an advocate for the homeless. Be true to yourself by being on the lookout for those things that are really other people’s priorities (your parent, boss, partner, etc.). After some inner reflection, you may come up with several ideas you want to set intentions around or you may find there’s one dominant focus that stands out.
ENVISION YOUR FUTURE SELF
Another helpful exercise is to envision your ideal future self. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths to relax and imagine you are living your perfect life. All your dreams are coming true. You have no regrets. What are you doing? What are you feeling? If you take the time to fully immerse yourself in this exercise, you may discover more of what gives your life meaning and joy. Then you can purposely add or keep these things in your life.
FOLLOW ONE COURSE UNTIL SUCCESSFUL
Keep the areas you want to focus on front and center in your mind. You could use pictures or quotes as reminders on your devices, on your bathroom mirror, in your cubicle or wherever you will see them every day. You could add a morning ritual of reviewing your intentions. For more impact, add why this is important to you. You could wear a specific piece of jewelry or keep a special stone or coin in your pocket as a reminder every time you notice it.
Find ways to make it easier to live your intentions. Surround yourself with people who support you in your journey. Sharing your vision with helpful family and friends is encouraging and fun. You might also need to make the tough choice of staying away from those individuals who aren’t supportive and who bring you down.
Build your resilience to life’s challenges that can knock you off course. These can be small things such as having an argument with a family member or coworker. Or they can be big things like losing your job or ending a relationship. It’s important to take care of yourself physically and emotionally and to keep discouragement, pessimism and stress at bay by learning to shift your thoughts. One way to accomplish this is by practicing gratitude—an excellent antidote to negative thinking. You can reflect on things you’re grateful for in the current moment, or you can capture them in a journal at the end of the day. Get creative by considering things, people, places, situations and opportunities— and even things you’re thankful you don’t have.
TAME YOUR MIND
Tame your thinking to quiet the negativity that can sabotage your efforts. Experiment with mindfulness practices. Try setting alarms on your phone and every time they go off, pay attention to what you’re thinking in that moment. Use a common trigger like a stop sign. When you see it, pause and reflect on your current thoughts. Are they serving you?
Living with intention is about choosing a path, a direction that is true to your purpose, values and beliefs. There will still be obstacles and collisions as if you were riding the bumper cars, but your intention will guide you back on course. Each of us needs to find the path that feels best for us. It may be cultivating a trait that’s important to us such as patience, compassion or generosity. It may be dedicating our thoughts and actions to topics that matter to us like domestic violence, environmental sustainability or social justice.
When we live without practicing intention, our lives are controlled by our survival instincts, our habits that have formed from our life experiences and the pressures and norms of society. We are at the mercy of what happens to us. To live our best life and be our best, most authentic self, we need to notice our ingrained reactions and then purposely choose how to move forward or respond. This gives us the amazing power to create and design the kind of life we want to live and how we want to be in that life.