By Blog contributor Annette Sugden
Buzzwords come and go. People float them around and get excited about the “latest thing.” Most of the time the concepts, beliefs, and actions these catchphrases describe are nothing new. One of the buzzwords that many people have begun embracing is ‘intentional living.” But what does that mean? And how can living intentionally improve your family life today?
Because I’m a writer and lover of words, including the origin of and the meaning of words, let’s first look at the individual words in the phrase “intentional living.”
The dictionary, Merriam-Webster defines the noun living as “the condition of being alive,” “means of subsistence,” and “conduct or manner of life.” But what is the meaning of life? It’s a question that scientists, philosophers, and religions have been grappling with and debating for millennia. Is life like the same dictionary says, the opposite of a dead body, or the mental and physical experiences that a person has over the course of their existence, or a spiritual experience that actually transcends death itself, or is it just the period between the time of our birth and the time of our death?
Life itself is abstract and subjective, but what about the word intention? Merriam-Webster defines the word as a synonym for resolve and is the conviction to behave in a particular way. The third definition also describes intention as something you “intend to do or bring about,” as well as something you can pray for, perform a ritual for, or do a good deed to cause. So right there in the meaning, there’s a contradiction between the secular and the sectarian worlds.
When we put the two words back together and take their definitions, the term intentional living literally means the determination to act in a specific way in how a person conducts themselves between birth and death. It could include a spiritual or religious component depending on what you do or don’t believe, but it doesn’t have to. The online crowdsourced resource site, Wikipedia defines the phrase as “any lifestyle” that involves a person's or group’s conscious efforts to conduct their life according to their beliefs or value system.
The determination to make a conscious effort to live according to your own values sounds great. If you’re a perfectionist like me, you might also feel like a constant failure if you feel like you can’t live intentionally all day every day. For example, you may feel guilty if you have a day where everything seems to be going wrong, and you swear or snap at your spouse. These feelings of guilt and shame might be compounded if a religious or spiritual group you belong to has put additional pressures on you to live in a certain way.
I’ve always been a very spiritual person. Several years ago I became involved with a spiritual group and some of the things I learned while I was there were helpful. This included things like examining your behavior, being less reactive and more conscious of your actions, as well as doing things like setting out your goals and coming up with a plan for achieving them. There was even an intentional community of people who lived together at centers located throughout the world.
I remember feeling a lot of pressure to do more spiritual actions, especially those that included spending money that went to the center. At the pinnacle of my involvement with the group, I didn’t notice when people who had been longtime members would leave due to “changes” in the spiritual practices and increasing focus on donations were labeled as being “negative,” or influenced by an evil entity. That’s because most of the time the message was all about joy, love, sharing, and becoming more conscious of your reactions to people and situations. To a woman who had a tough childhood, as well as a negative sense of self, these ideas were incredibly powerful.
I can’t remember what finally made me decide to leave. Maybe it was that I started to see things for what they were when I had to move to a state that didn’t have a local center. But a few years after I left, one of the leaders was accused of misconduct which caused many people to leave the group, including high ranking members and teachers. These teachers and former members had to come to terms with the ramifications of promoting the group to others as well as threats and bullying on social media from people still loyal to the group.
Between this experience, as well as others, I've questioned the likelihood of being able to live intentionally. In one blog I read, the writer claimed that since they started living intentionally, they wake up every single day with a positive attitude, feeling grateful and full of joy. The writer is a career coach who claims they’re excited every single day now. Really? Never a bad mood or a bad day. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it. Nobody is that happy or that perfect.
When things sound too good to be true, they usually are, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of living intentionally is unattainable. No matter what your spiritual beliefs are, you can learn to live a life of intention. This can improve your family life today and every day without feeling pressured to be perfect or to follow a particular religion. As we found out earlier, the words intention and living don’t necessarily have a religious connotation. The idea of being more intentional is one that’s also used in the business world, in psychology, and by life coaches, career coaches, and sports coaches.
Of course, if you are a spiritual or religious person, there’s nothing wrong with living more intentionally according to the tenets of your beliefs. The point is, anyone can decide to live an intentional life.
Here’s how to get started:
About three years ago I was living a very different life. I was working with special needs children for very little money, living paycheck to paycheck. Although what I did for work helped families and children, it was difficult to take care of myself. When things became worse, I realized it was time for some radical changes. I used some of the principles I’d learned in my spiritual quest to help me decide what I wanted from my life.
These actions are what helped me change careers at the age of 48. It took almost a year of work on myself and lots of networking, but two years ago, I found a job in content marketing at a fantastic company. BizIQ serves small businesses across the country. I also started a relationship with an amazing man, and we now own a beautiful home together.
None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t made a choice to sit down and examine what I really wanted from life. You can do the same. Furthermore, you don’t have to change your job or buy a home. Your goals might be things like having a more positive outlook, being more creative or not scolding your kids as much.
To decide you want a different job or career, or that you need to lose weight, or that you’re now going to travel the world isn’t enough unless you know why you want these things. Your reasons don’t have to be profound but it is helpful to understand why you want what you want.
In addition to asking yourself why you want a change, you need to examine why you currently are doing what you’re doing. For example, before I changed careers, I asked myself why I was working in a job where I struggled personally. Answering that helped me realize that no matter how much I was helping others, I couldn’t help anybody if my own basic needs were not being met.
In the marketing world, we call measurable goals SMART goals which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. You want your goals to be specific and not abstract, to have a way to measure your progress, and for goals to be realistic. You also want to give yourself a time frame for achieving and/or reassessing your goals.
In my case, I set myself the goal of finding a professional writing job in digital marketing within one year. I gave myself mini-goals of applying to at least five positions a day or finding five new networking opportunities a day. These goals were realistic and timely. If I didn’t find a job in a year, I could reassess my goals. Maybe I needed more classes or other experience first. By using this strategy and making a conscious effort, I found my current job in nine months.
It’s not enough to have goals, you have to act on them. Break down your goals into specific tasks, then create weekly or daily hotlists and action plans to keep yourself accountable. Include breaks and fun activities in your plan and don’t give up if you have a day or a week when you aren't working toward your goals. Part of living intentionally means knowing you’re not perfect and being kind to yourself. Going off your plan doesn’t mean failure. It means you need to get back on plan and keep striving.
When I was working towards changing careers, I fought a lot of my negative thinking. I was 48 - who was I to think I could compete with all the younger people in the tech world? Not to mention all the articles about how hard it is to find a job let alone change careers during midlife. I had days where I just came home from work and watched television instead of going to the library to work on my job search. But I didn’t give up.
When you reach a goal, reward yourself. Also, don’t neglect to take care of yourself. Even if you’ve scheduled breaks and self-care into your action plan, there still are going to be days you just need to do something else.
There might even be days you realize one of your goals is no longer relevant. Intentional living doesn’t mean you’re permanently tied to goals and can’t change your mind. The more in tune you get with what you want and why, the easier it alter or get rid of a goal that is no longer serving you.
When I first started looking my career change, I didn’t think I had enough experience and discounted my past freelance and creative work experiences. That led me to not apply for lots of positions that were more aligned with my goals. I saw the job posting for my current position several times before I got up the nerve to apply for it. If I hadn’t stepped back and reaffirmed my goals, I wouldn’t hold my current position.
No matter who you are, you can choose to live a more conscious life. Intentional living doesn’t mean radically changing every aspect of your life. It's okay to take baby steps towards a simpler lifestyle and improving your family's lives. Maybe start out by decluttering your home, or eating more organic foods. You could also begin using natural, chemical-free cleaning products.
The critical thing to remember is that intentional living means making a conscious effort to live life according to your own value system and beliefs, and not what anybody else tells you is the real way to have a more intentional life. Do what’s comfortable for you and what works for your family. Gather friends who want to support each other in their own journeys to a simpler life. Create a peaceful space in your home for relaxation and meditation, or take up a new hobby like jewelry making that includes natural materials like bone beads and crystals. Remember, it’s one step at a time. You don’t have to be perfect to discover what you want out of life and why.
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