Intentional living is a phrase that’s in vogue at the moment – but what exactly does it mean? And does it really have the power to change your life?
Well, let’s just say that I discovered it the hard way. But once I did, it’s been the catalyst for changing my life in ways that I wouldn’t have even thought were possible just a few years ago.
For the longest time, I played the part of who I was ‘supposed’ to be as a young woman in my twenties. I routinely felt like a backseat driver in my own life with no agency over the course in which I was heading. And that’s because I’d been blindly following a traditional narrative of success. There was no awareness that I could change the blueprint and go after the stuff I really wanted. Hell, I didn’t even know what I really wanted.
So let’s put it this way. Do you ever feel vaguely unfulfilled and directionless, as if you’re living life on autopilot?
If you answered yes, then I’m guessing that you too have never stopped to question the rulebook for your own life. Is it your own? If not, then who wrote it? And where exactly did all this stuff come from, anyway?
A Life Unravelling at the Seams: My Story
Ever since childhood, I was always the ‘good girl’ that did everything I was supposed to do.
I held an unquestioned belief that fulfilment was a nice house, a stable relationship and a reliable paycheck at the end of every month.
I thought that happiness could be found in the latest iPhone model, or would finally reveal itself when I bagged that promotion I was gunning for at work. But strangely enough, no matter what I achieved – right down to a first-class Master’s degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world – I never felt satisfied. In fact, I would often feel inexplicably sad or trapped for no apparent reason.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then I was the living proof of it. I worked harder, barely paused for air, bought the stuff that adverts told me I needed… Ad nauseum, repeat.
In hindsight, this was my cue to peel back the layers and work out what was going on beneath the surface. Instead, I hastily stuffed those feelings down with a takeaway, a holiday, or some other dose of instant gratification.
It should come as no surprise that a life built on unexamined, shaky foundations can collapse. And that’s exactly what mine did. In the space of a few short months approaching my thirtieth birthday, I broke up with my fiancé, sold our home, lost my job and moved back into my childhood bedroom.
It was during this intense period of self-reflection that I grasped the fundamentals of intentional living… and I had to undergo the painstaking, trial-and-error process of rebuilding from the ground up.
What Is Intentional Living? How Can It Help You?
Intentional (adjective): Done on purpose; deliberate.
Living with intention means living your life more on purpose and less on impulse or auto-pilot. You need to have absolute clarity on what is truly important to you as an individual so that you can build on solid foundations. Only then can you be the captain of your own ship – anchored and guided by your own set of personal values.
This will infinitely improve your personal relationships and lead to feelings of:
Improved mental health and less daily stress
Reduced decision fatigue
Increased self-esteem, capability and empowerment
Being more present, focused and in-tune
Long-term satisfaction and fulfilment
I should pause to mention here that to live intentionally doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience pain or hardship ever again – far from it. However, what intentional choices will do is help you to accept responsibility for the things that happen to you, as well as enabling you to better navigate life’s unforeseen ups and downs.
You can withstand many things life throws your way when you are living in alignment; in a way that is authentic and true to who you really are.
Common Barriers to Living Intentionally
Now, you may be thinking this all sounds great – I mean, who doesn’t want all the benefits an intentional life promises?! But I should warn you that the road towards intentional living isn’t always smooth. It’s a tough process because it means regularly questioning the things you’ve always taken for granted and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Whether it’s deciding not to follow the career path your parents had in mind or embarking on a counter-cultural lifestyle choice – an intentional life doesn’t equal a simple life. It involves setting boundaries, taking accountability, unsettling personal growth, and picking apart your fundamental beliefs about yourself and the world at large.
Yep, this may mean that you don’t live up to your family’s expectations, your circle of friends changes, or you have to make necessary sacrifices for the things that matter to you. Along the way, you will be faced with challenges such as:
How to overcome the need for external validation
How to stop your people-pleasing tendencies
How to give up ‘busyness’ as a badge of honour
How to prioritise growth over comfort
How to move past procrastination and perfectionism
How to be self-disciplined and use your time purposefully
If you’ve ever tried any of these things, it goes without saying that it’s no mean feat. What you need to remember is that your ego is tied to your current identity and defending it at all costs – no matter how much you recognise that there are areas in which you want to make changes. Living an intentional life therefore requires a big dose of humility, commitment and genuine curiosity. And this is why, for all its benefits, few people have the courage to walk this path.
The question is… do you?
Are You Currently Living With Intention?
Let’s be clear: you don’t need to hit rock bottom to live with more intention, so please use my story as a cautionary tale! However, there may be some changes you need to make – both big and small – when you consider the ‘why’ behind your life’s choices.
So grab a pen and paper or pull up a Word Doc, and approach this exercise with honesty and self-compassion. And don’t worry if you’re not satisfied with the answers – you can’t make changes for the better if you don’t have an awareness of what the problems are in the first place.
Why are you with your partner?
What drew you to your current circle of friends?
Why do you live where you do?
Why are you working at your current job?
What do you regularly spend your money on, and why?
Why do you possess your political and religious beliefs?
How does your daily routine support you?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Do you feel proud of yourself?
When living intentionally, these are the kinds of questions you should be able to answer and feel good about. So if you struggled with any of these – for example, ‘I sort of fell into my current job’ or ‘this is the town I grew up in so I never considered living anywhere else’ – then maybe you’re slightly out of kilter. But don’t panic just yet, because I’ve got some tips to help you get back on track!
10 Steps to an Intentional Life for Beginners
Living intentionally will look different to each individual – that’s the beauty of it. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to what success, happiness or fulfilment looks like. However, in terms of how to get there, this is your beginner’s guide that breaks it down into manageable steps – something I wish I’d had at the start of my own intentional journey.
1. Question the rulebook
Before you start defining your own set of core values or trying to make changes in your own life, I think this is the step most people forget. And it’s a vital one.
Firstly, you need to be aware of your own current belief system. What is it that you believe about yourself and how you conduct yourself in the world? Where do these beliefs come from (parents, teachers, society)? And are they serving you to live your best life?
Spend some time internally investigating. Free-write anything and everything you believe to be true about each area of your life – the good, the bad, and the ugly:
Family & Friends
Partner & Love
Money & Finances
Career & Work
Health & Fitness
Fun & Recreation
Don’t overthink or overcomplicate this. Usually, the first thoughts that spring to mind are representative of your habitual thought patterns. Let’s take a look at some of the unhelpful and limiting self-beliefs that I was able to successfully unpick using this method:
“The more I put in at work, the more valued I will be.”
“I hated P.E. at school, therefore I’m just not cut out for physical exercise.”
“I’m not a very practical person – I’ve always had my head in the clouds.”
When I took the time to question them, I realised that they simply don’t bear up to closer scrutiny, e.g. I know from experience that overworking only leads to burnout and the same amount deposited in my bank account at the end of the month.
The simple truth is that you are telling yourself stories about yourself every single day. Your mind is made up of a rich interwoven tapestry of internalised messages and perceptions that probably have very little to do with the ‘truth’. So at least make up the best damn stories to live by!
2. Rewrite the rulebook
Once you’ve gained a better sense of what your old rulebook looks like, it’s time to rewrite it.
You may want to pause at this point and jump over to this post on the subject, where I go into detail about how to identify your personal values. The values that I identified for myself and that I try to live by every day are:
As a quick aside here – please don’t think that my values are the ‘best’ or ‘ideal’ values to live by. Intentional living is hard because, I get it, you just want someone to goddamn tell you how best to live, complete with a free tickable checklist. But this part is very much personal and unique to you. The things that I value may be vastly different to what you value. That doesn’t mean that your list isn’t completely valid and meaningful to YOU.
Assessing your core beliefs and writing a personal values statement takes a little time and effort, but I promise that knowing your ‘why’ is one of the most empowering things you’ll ever do if you’re looking to live more intentionally. It helps you to make more purposeful decisions and starts you on the path towards true authenticity.
3. Create a vision board
The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.
Creating a vision board will take your personal value statement to the next level. Not only is it super fun and creative – most importantly, it helps you to enter into the emotional state of all the things you dream about. A vision board will set your subconscious into motion with creative solutions to bring about your goals, giving you a defined purpose and helping you to stay focused and motivated when the going gets tough.
Ultimately, whether you believe in manifestation or not, it’s been proven that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goals simply by writing them down.
You could make something physical and display it in your home. Or, if you’re more private, keep it in an easily accessible scrapbook or folder. As in the video above, try using Pinterest and Canva to create your vision board, then set this as your Mobile or Desktop background.
The important thing is to revisit your vision board daily and allow yourself to feel excited about it – even if you have no idea of the exact steps to get there just yet.
4. Take responsibility
Now that you’ve laid some solid foundations by doing the inner work, it gets tough. Because a huge step to living intentionally is fully accepting that you can change and that you have agency over your own life. Too often in the past, I’ve let my mind take over and been swallowed up with negative feelings like:
“That’s just the way I am.”
“Extraordinary things don’t happen to people like me.”
“Life is hard – get used to it.”
These are easy excuses to carry on scrolling social media, wasting time and drifting aimlessly towards nothing but a very mediocre life. Of course, you’ll always face challenges and things will happen that are outside of your control. But that doesn’t mean that you have to let your current circumstances or things that have happened to you in the past define you.
If you find that you have a victim mentality and would prefer to blame the world and his dog for your problems, then try a book like Radical Forgiveness (it’s a challenging read, but I found it really useful). You need to start taking responsibility for everything in your life if you want to move into a position of personal power.
5. Make 1% habit changes – now
The problem is, we all think we have to make monumental changes in our lives when the reality is we’d do well to start small. The great thing about small changes is that they’re generally more realistic and sustainable over the long term, propelling us organically onto bigger and better things (for more on the power of tiny improvements, I can’t recommend James Clear’s Atomic Habits enough).
My evening routine, for instance, started with a commitment to never going to bed with a dirty sink. And my morning routine grew out of the incredibly simple act of getting up on my alarm and making my bed.
Developing self-discipline is like building a muscle. Making the decision to be the best version of yourself every single day requires forming healthy habits and holding yourself accountable to them.
It’s easy to think that buying a gym membership is the answer to a toned body (and it’s certainly not a bad starting point), but this money leaving your account every month won’t instantly transform you. Only doing exercise every day will help you to accomplish that goal. So prioritise systems over goal-setting.
Try not to let perfectionism derail you and be flexible with your own expectations of yourself. You don’t have to have every little detail figured out and you can always pick yourself back up again when life gets in the way – just remember that you can be the designer of your own life.
The more you repeat small, intentional decisions each day, the more compound interest you’ll be accruing towards a life lived on purpose.
6. Stop comparing yourself
As we’ve already established, to live intentionally means living life by your own rulebook. But not everyone is going to agree with your set of rules. And I’ll let you into a little secret – that’s completely okay!
When I went freelance with my writing, I gave up a good fixed salary to do so, and this was tough because it wasn’t the blueprint laid out for me by my family and friends. They kept reassuring me that I could look for another job if it didn’t work out, which I’m sure came from a place of love and support. But I’d have to have been superhuman not to let it make me doubt my decision at times.
It also challenged my own internalised notions of success – I didn’t have as much disposable income and wasn’t moving up the corporate ladder. It took a lot of reframing to establish that working for myself would always be more of an achievement to me and give me more of what I want in life – independence, freedom and time.
You’re running your own race, so don’t forget to unfollow and unsubscribe from social media accounts that make you feel anxious or unworthy, too. Try to surround yourself with your own tribe as much as possible, and check that your own self-talk is drowning out the nay-sayers.
7. Set healthy boundaries
To live intentionally means focusing on the stuff that matters, which usually means that rather than doing more things and getting swept up in a frenzy of toxic productivity, you should actually be doing less.
Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is an excellent introduction to this concept. Basically, you can be a busy person and (to all intents and purposes) appear outwardly very successful, but this can leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled if you don’t set healthy boundaries around your time and energy.
Learning to say no, especially if you have people-pleasing tendencies, can be really hard. But it’s another muscle you’re going to have to develop on your intentional living journey.
Identify the things that you don’t have to do but that you feel pressured to do and simply ask yourself – what would happen if you said no to them moving forwards? You get more of what you focus on, so don’t be afraid to make tough choices.
8. Declutter the inessentials
Our lives are full of stuff, much of it mindlessly acquired. And it ends up weighing us down mentally as much as physically. To live intentionally means being conscious about how you choose to spend your time and energy, but it also means assessing your spending habits and being more intentional about the things you choose to bring into your life.
When you start to pick apart the fabricated narrative of your own life, you can’t help but start to do the same for the world around you. Fast fashion may be cluttering up your wardrobe, but it also has a careless social and environmental impact that you may not want to be a part of.
Decluttering shouldn’t just be an endless cycle of getting rid of things – it should challenge you to radically rethink your wasteful consumerist habits. When you’re working towards the best version of yourself, you can’t help but become more engaged in working towards a better world, too.
9. Reflect every day
To live intentionally means having an awareness of why you do the things you do. We mostly live on the surface level of our lives, running the usual pre-programmed systems that have got us to where we find ourselves now.
One of the most important things you can do to live less on autopilot is to check in with yourself daily and make time for self-reflection. This is the utmost act of self-care which will help you to stay focused on what really matters and keep you on track.
A good way to do this is to start a journaling habit. Spend a few moments when you wake up and before you go to bed getting to know yourself at a deeper level – it can’t help but steer you through your daily life with more intention.
10. Be present & enjoy the journey
It’s important to remember that intentional living isn’t a one-stop shop once you’ve defined your personal values. The process of trying to live by them is a continuous journey… There is no final destination.
I think we all have a habit of saying ‘When I get this’ or ‘Once I’ve achieved that’, I’ll finally be happy. But has this ever actually happened, or do you find that the goalposts inexplicably move further away as soon as you reach that thing you were aiming for?
Life is a whole lot more fun when you enjoy the journey and learn to appreciate exactly where you are right now. I know this can be hard if you don’t feel like you’re where you’re supposed to be, but always look for the things to be grateful for. Be present with your loved ones. Slow down and concentrate on one thing at a time – deliberately, purposefully. This way, you invite more of the things you want into your life.
Live Life Intentionally: Stop Existing & Start Living a Life On Purpose
I hope that this post goes some way to helping you navigate your own intentional journey. Whether you’re right at the start or doing your best along the way, no one ever said it would be easy. But is anything worthwhile in life ever easy?
We live in a society that is geared towards keeping us perpetually distracted and always wanting more, so try to shift your output towards creation rather than consumption, and make sure your inner voice is loud enough to drown out the inconsequential noise.
I’d love to hear about your own successes, challenges and learns – how have you rewritten your own rulebook?