Four steps for living an intentional life

Intentional living has become somewhat of a buzzword in the last few years. It’s often used with – or even interchanged with – terms like minimalism, simple living or sustainable living, decluttering, productivity, and so on.

So you might find other articles that say intentional living includes living with less stuff, being mindful about what you consume, or managing the way you spend your time, and that can be true. However, there’s something about attaching it to specific tips or outcomes that makes the idea feel like yet another task for you to complete, or standard for you to live up to. Personally, I prefer to take a more holistic view.

To me, living an intentional life means living in a way that feels right for you.

It’s paying attention to the path you are currently on and asking yourself how you feel about it. It’s getting curious about the choices you’ve made and looking for options that seem more aligned. It’s learning how to change paths, by taking one step at a time, then looking up and around you, and seeing if you like where you’re going. And knowing when it’s time to make yet another change, and trusting your own voice all throughout the process. 

This isn’t always easy, especially in a world filled with rules and stories about the way you are supposed to live. But, at the end of the day, you are the only person who knows what’s right for you. Intentional living, then, will result in a life lived on your own terms.

Here are some of the practices that might help you along the way.

Slow down and pay closer attention

In order to experience the benefits that come from living an intentional life, you need to understand which aspects of your life you want to shift or change. And, in order to do that, you will first need to notice the signs. These are the things you are feeling, seeing, saying, or thinking about over and over again. They should be obvious, but we often miss them.

How is that possible? From what I’ve learned and gathered, it’s often because we are so plugged into our lives that we end up completely disconnected from ourselves. By “plugged into,” I don’t necessarily mean that you are staring into the screens of your phone, computer, or television all day long. No, what I mean is a little simpler than that: it’s just that we are so busy living.

Keeping ourselves busy with our routines, going through the motions, and doing what we’ve always done. And believing, or reinforcing, the stories that have told us this is how it’s supposed to be. So we miss the signs or ignore them when we see them. But what we really need is to slow down, pay closer attention, and get curious about the direction they are pointing us toward.

Consider your own values

One of the reasons you might be drawn to intentional living is if you feel you are currently living out someone else’s values rather than your own. This is common, especially if your family has strong values or ways of living. But your values are essentially the personal code of conduct or morals that you choose to live by. And being able to identify your own values is arguably one of the most important parts of living an intentional life. It’s also one of the most difficult concepts to explain, especially if you’ve never before consciously thought about what yours might be. Here’s something that helped me.

Whereas most other writers will give you the same exercise to help you determine what your values are, I’m hesitant to suggest that reading a list of a hundred words and circling five or 10 that resonate will be helpful.

In my earliest experiences with that exercise, before I had developed much self-awareness, I found I picked words that described either my aspirations (the things I hoped to value one day) or the values my parents had (which are easily passed down). Instead, something I have come to believe is that you may not be able to figure out what your values are until you’re living out of alignment from them. To look at the way you are living and ask yourself how you feel about it. To pay attention to the things that don’t feel good. 

If you’re living out of alignment with your values, you know. It can leave you feeling sad, disconnected from reality, guilty, ashamed, and so on. And it can leave you feeling stuck. So, what feels off? What shift do you want to make and why? What is your vision for your life? And how do you want to feel? These questions can help you determine some of your values. You can look at the long list of words afterwards!

Give yourself permission to change (as many times as you want)

So far, you’ve seen the signs and considered what your personal values might be. This, on its own, is an important practice. But now, it’s time to take some sort of action. To do something that will help you move in the direction you want to go, and to begin living a more intentional life.

 You might feel a bit nervous or apprehensive at this stage of the journey. It’s not easy to walk off one path you were on or to enter the unknown. It’s especially difficult if you don’t know anyone who has done the same, or who can assure you that it will work out. But you can’t know what’s going to happen or how you’re going to feel about it until you start going down the new path. Instead, you have to work past the fear of doing it “wrong” or “failing” and simply try. To do this, I love the idea of experimenting.

Image of a woman at the seaside holding her small greyhound

By experimenting, you give yourself permission to try something new and see how it goes. As you would with a science experiment, it’s an opportunity for you to simply collect some data on yourself, to gain new experience, and to learn and grow along the way. Does that sound more manageable? 

This way of living can require a bit of a mindset shift. We tend to think that every choice we make is a choice for life, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Your life should actually be a series of choices and adventures. If you’re being really intentional, you will likely take many different paths in your life. So give yourself permission to try something that feels like it will be more aligned for you. And then give yourself permission to make another shift or change again in the future.

Take time to reflect – and trust your own voice

Finally, now that you know intentional living is a lifelong journey, you know you’ll likely be making many changes and shifts forever. And, in order to know what you want to change, you will need to create some space in your life to practice self-reflection. This can be as casual or committed as you like – and be done alone with your journal, or in conversation with others (like a partner, friend, coach or counsellor).

Whatever you do, remember that the most important component of being introspective and looking within is that you are honest with yourself – and that you slowly learn to trust your own voice.

The most common thing that holds us back from doing what’s right for us is fear – and that fear is repeated over and over again by the voice within delivering stories we have been told and/or come to believe. But where did those stories come from? Are they really true? And how can you let them go?

Here are a few of the questions that might help you dig in:

  • Who told you that you had to live this way?
  • What would you like to do differently?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • Where did your fear(s) come from?
  • What would you do if your fear(s) came true?
  • What would happen if you gave yourself permission to change anyway?

Look at the stories you’re telling yourself and rewrite the ones that are holding you back. Do this again and again, until your excitement about what’s possible weighs a little more than your fear. It will eventually become a habit. 

A practice of discernment and self-awareness. An act of self-trust and self-love. A reminder that nobody knows you better than you do. And that only you can answer the question: what do you really want?

Cait Flanders is the author of Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life (Trigger Publishing, £12.99. Available online and from all good bookstores).

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Written by Cait Flanders
Cait Flanders is the author of Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Year of Less. Her new book, Adventures of Opting Out is a guide to opting out of expectations, changing paths, and leading a more intentional life.

Written by Cait Flanders

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