If you watch TV or are exposed to commercials of any kind (now that there are TV screens at the gas station and in the check-out aisles, they’re kind of hard to avoid!) you know that the New Year is the perfect time to:
Get in shape!
Organize your house! Your kids! Your life!
The basic message is: January is the perfect time to start whipping your body and life into shape so that it resembles the cover of a magazine!
I don’t know about you, but it’s enough to leave me feeling woefully inadequate!
What can make it even worse is walking into your office on the 1st working day of the new year only to confront that pile of unfinished business from 2016. And feeling like 2017’s “to do” list is already unwieldy. It’s enough to suck all of the holiday joy right out of the air!
At this time of year, many of us make RESOLUTIONS.
I find it much more helpful to make INTENTIONS.
(I don’t make them on December 31st, I set them every morning.)
What’s the difference between the two, you ask?
According to the dictionary, RESOLVE means to settle or find a solution to a problem or dispute, or to decide firmly on a course of action. INTEND means to have a course of action as one’s purpose or objective, or to design or destine someone or something for a particular purpose.
The key difference between the two is the word PURPOSE.
In my experience, most of us make New Year’s resolutions that are focused on exterior characteristics, and based on how/what others expect us to be (fit, thin, organized, beautiful, etc.).
And perhaps that’s why so many of us fail to keep them, because they’re rooted in external factors, rather than what we really want for ourselves.
Setting intentions means being intentional, acting with purpose; it means looking inward, listening to your gut, deciding what it is you really want for your life, and then taking the steps – however tiny! – to move you in that direction.
Being intentional is not about doing stuff (e.g., working out, eating better, organizing the clutter, etc.) — it’s about being. And it’s a process.
I am by no means arguing that we shouldn’t aim for self-improvement. Getting exercise and eating healthfully are important. Reducing your level of stress by getting rid of stuff you don’t need and organizing the stuff you do is a wonderful thing. What I’m saying is that doing all of that is meaningless without also exercising your heart and
de-cluttering your mind.
Each one of us is faced with dozens of choices every single day. Some of these are small (which pair of shoes do I want to wear?) and some of them big (what are we going to do about Mom and her dementia?). Even when it doesn’t feel like you have a choice, you do.
Sometimes, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance, to go along to get along; not take the time to explore all of our options and selecting the one that works best for us — but even in that, you’re making a choice (that’s a little bit of a mind f*, I know).
Anyone can be intentional and lead a purpose-driven life. Being intentional is not about becoming a vegetarian, eating organic food – some of which you grow yourself — homeschooling your children, drinking only fair trade coffee, or any of those things. You don’t need to be “New Age,” “woo-woo” or a “hippie” to live intentionally.
Living intentionally doesn’t have anything to do with the specific choices you’re making at all.
It’s about your purpose. Your intent.
Living an intentional life is about coming to understand why you do what you do, and doing those things that best serve you – and clearing away all the rest. I can tell you from experience that it’s not always easy! But the more practice you get, the stronger you become and the easier it gets.
One of the first BIG purposeful decisions I made was the fall of my senior year in college. I was supposed to go to my paternal grandmother’s house, as per usual, but there was some family drama going on that would have required me to choose between two factions of relatives. Because I (a) loved all of them and (b) refused to let them force me into choosing between them, I decided to go to a friend’s house that Thanksgiving.
I got phone calls from several angry relatives, who were not happy with my decision. It had been hard enough to make the decision in the first place – I was shaking in my boots, even after I made it! — but to get beat up by the people I loved for having made it was devastating. Still, I simply would not – and could not — choose one set of relatives over the other. Nor was I going to make myself crazy by trying to make it to both celebrations. So I went to my friend’s house and had a lovely time. No stress, no drama — just turkey, stuffing, laughter and fun.
And guess what – when I saw them all at Easter (they’d patched things up by then), everything was fine.
I hadn’t been struck down by lightning for side-stepping the family drama and nobody stopped loving me for having skipped out on Thanksgiving. But even if they had – while it would have been painful, it would have been okay. Because I loved myself too much to put myself through all that sh*t.
It’s gotten a lot easier since then!
All this to say that being intentional – purposeful — is about thinking through each decision, weighing your options and all the possible consequences (both good and bad), and making your decisions with your eyes wide open. Being intentional is about taking a step back and evaluating the things you are – and aren’t – doing, and to what degree they are – or aren’t – working for you, and using that information to inform your future decisions.
It also means you’re constantly reevaluating those decisions as you go along – because after all, life changes and we evolve. Let me give you an example – back in the mid-90s, my marriage was in trouble. I won’t get into the details, but I was in a lot of pain and was seriously considering terminating the relationship. I was working with a therapist to figure out what to do. Given that I had a 1-year-old at the time, it was a significant and weighty decision.
During one of our sessions, I was beating myself up, wondering how I could have married a man who, in the long-run, turned out to be such a bad match for me, what was wrong with me, blah, blah, blah.
My therapist reminded me that in every minute of every day, we make the best decision we can with the information we have – but that doesn’t mean that will continue to be the best decision for us.
That was one of the most liberating things anyone has ever said to me, because it gave me the freedom to make a different choice – not just about my marriage (which I later terminated), but about everything.
None of us are locked into the decisions we made – last week, last year, last decade.
We don’t have to enslave ourselves to decisions we made in the past.
We can make a new choice in any minute of any day.
So – how do you start living intentionally? Living a purposeful life? And shedding all the mental and emotional clutter that’s holding you back?
One day and one step at a time. With a dash of faith and courage thrown in.
Here are some of the things that have helped me live a more intentional life:
- Cheryl Richardson’s book, Take Time for Your Life. I loved this book, because the book is divided into 7 chapters, each focusing on a different part of your life. Plus, she provides exercises to help you think (feel) through what you want. Reading this book shortly after I became a single Mom had a huge impact on how I’ve lived my life for the past 18 years!
- Morning meditation. I might sit down and meditate for 10 minutes, or I might do a walking meditation for 30 with the dog in tow. The point is to use the opportunity to drop down out of your head and listen to your heart. What does it want? What is it yearning for most? And what one thing can you do today to move in the direction of that yearning?
- Journaling: I start out with stream of consciousness writing, then move to structured writing, as follows:
My intention for today is:__________________________ (sometimes I look up quotes to get inspiration)
Three things I’m grateful for:
(on really tough days, this might be my breath… my health… the roof over my head… there is always something for which we can feel gratitude!)
Three wins/successes I’m celebrating:
(this might be something as simple as getting the dog on 3 walks, drinking enough water… it doesn’t have to be something huge!)
I’m in the process of:
(here I list 3 things I desire in my life – for example, strong, loving friendships. After each item, I answer the question, “What do I need to do or what does that look like today?” So, in terms of building strong, loving friendships, it might mean sending a note to a friend, calling her up to schedule a play date, or something else.)
Then I write the 3 things that I AM GOING TO DO TODAY, NO MATTER WHAT!
Again, these don’t have to be ginormous undertakings – they should, however, be things that relates to the 3 items that you’re in the process of… sticking with the strong, loving friendships example, it might be “I’m going to make a birthday card for my friend Suzanne.”
After this, I write down the 3 things that feel too big for me, and that I’m turning over to the Universe (or God, or Allah, or another spiritual being of your choice) to handle on my behalf.
Next, I write my Desire Statement, which goes as follows: “I am in the process of unfolding all that I need to do, know, have and be to: ___________________________.”
Finally, I finish this sentence: “I’ve decided that: __________________________.”
No matter how many times I use this framework, I never cease to be amazed at the things that come pouring out of me as I write. It’s a great way to get clear about what I really want.
- Focusing on my strengths and positive attributes. When you focus on what you perceive to be your failings and shortcomings to be, and resolve to “fix” them, you’re focusing your time, attention and energy on what is wrong. This places you firmly in the negative. And yuck! Who wants to spend all their time there?
This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to identify and improve our character flaws. For example, one of the things I realized while on retreat in Peru this past summer is that there are still ways in which I inadvertently “stiff arm” people, keep them at a distance. It’s an old habit, one that comes from having a rough childhood and not always feeling safe. I’ve come a looooooong way on this front, so I was actually surprised to discover that on some level, I still keep people at bay.
However, rather than focus on the negative, and making myself “bad” for not yet kicking this old habit (which was, after all, developed when I was just a kid, as a form of protection), I am instead focusing on how much I love getting to know and being with other people. To cultivate more of this in my life, I continually ask myself:
–How can I be more open?
–How can I be more inviting?
–How can I better receive the friendship and love that others have to offer?
–What gestures can I make to let people know that I want and appreciate them in my life?
One of the little things I’ve done since I discovered this about myself is to visit my neighborhood friends as the mood strikes me. Yup, I drop by, unannounced (when I was a kid, this was par for the course among the Moms in our neighborhood). If they’re not home or they’re busy, it doesn’t matter – what matters is that I took the time to make the effort to connect with people I care about. And even if we only visit for 5 minutes, they know that I cared enough to stop by and see how they were doing.
I’ve also spent some time journaling about all the ways in which I have kept people at a distance over the years. Cried about it. Forgiven myself for it. Talked to a few of them about it. This has allowed me to let it all go and in doing so, step even more deeply into how I want to be.
So – what do you love about yourself? What do you love about your life? And how can you get more of that?
By choosing more of what feeds you, you will automatically be saying no to the people, places and things that don’t.
And this is how intentional/purposeful living happens – one “yes” at a time.
I’m not saying this is easy. But it is simple.
It takes practice.
I believe that self-love starts with self-knowledge. Doing a deep dive on who we are in this world. What and who is important to us. What serves us, and what does not. What we want to make time for, and what we do not. What we want to say YES! to (which automatically means saying no to something else). Creating space in our lives for what’s important. Of value.
YOU are the greatest gift you have. To give to yourself. To your family and friends. To your clients. To your organization. To the world.
So this year, let’s ditch the Resolutions (which are usually rooted in judgement).
And switch to intentions (which are a much more compassionate way to go)!
Give it a try for 30 days and see how it goes (what do you have to lose?!).
I’d love to hear from you!
What’s your experience with resolutions?
What do you think about all this intention stuff? Does it sound like total crap, or something you’d be willing to try? And if so, what intentions do you want to set during this first week of 2017? If not, what’s holding you back? And how can I help?
Here’s to a New Year, filled with positive intentions!
I’ll always have your back,