To act with intention simply means to act consciously, with complete awareness in what you’re doing, and why and how you’re doing it. But although the concept may be simple, it is not always easy to put into practice. Our minds are designed to work from habit and conditioned responses – it’s part of the evolutionary wiring that kept us safe in the jungles and savannahs of our ancestry. But these habits and conditioned responses don’t always serve us well in today’s world.
Habit and conditioning circumvent thinking. They’re supposed to – stopping to think about your response to a tiger attack is not the best way to survive. However, in today’s world thinking and acting with intention is no longer a danger. In fact, doing so can help you break free of outdated habits that no longer serve you, as well as allowing you to make better choices and more effective decisions in your life.
Thinking and acting with intention is the antidote to living through habit and conditioning, but it does take practice. Below are four exercises to help you achieve and maintain awareness in your day-to-day activities.
Mix and Match Routines. If you normally brush your teeth immediately upon rising, try making the bed first instead. Take an entirely new exercise circuit or walking path. Eat someplace you’ve never been before. Jumble your routine work habits around (making calls first instead of answering emails, for example). Choose a book from a section of the library you don’t normally frequent, or check out an audio book instead of a paper one.
As you do this, ask yourself: Why do I do things the way I normally do them – is it because it works best, or is it just a habit? Are there better ways of doing it? What do I get out of my habit, and what might it be costing me?
Changing up your routine forces you to pay attention to what you’re doing, and may show you new ways of doing things that work better than what you’re doing now.
Time to Pay Attention. Set a timer to go off at random intervals (you can do this by resetting it randomly whenever it goes off, if it doesn’t have a randomizer built in). Whenever the timer goes off, that’s your cue to pay extremely close attention to whatever you’re doing. For example, if you’re preparing lunch, pay attention to how the implements feel in your hand, how the food looks, smells and feels, what sounds you can hear and how your body is moving as you work. Really concentrate on what you’re doing – be completely there in the moment.
Have you ever eaten a meal and looked down to find the plate empty without being able to remember eating it all, or found yourself arriving at a destination unable to recall traveling the intervening space? Too often, we go through out days in a sort of fog, never really paying close attention to what we’re doing even when what we’re doing requires attention, like driving or cooking. In this way, entire weeks can pass and we can barely remember what we ate or did. Close and intentional attention breaks through this fog and forces you to really live within your life, rather than just living through it.
The Five Senses. Choose an activity that you do frequently but that is often done on autopilot (for example, eating, walking or getting dressed). For the entire day, every time you do that activity, slow down and take inventory of your senses as you do it.
Let’s take getting dressed as our example. While you get dressed, pay attention to the sound and feel of the cloth moving over your skin, the smells, color and textures of the fabric. Pay very close attention to the sensory world created by whatever you’re doing. Tomorrow, pick a different activity and repeat.
Paying attention to the sensory world helps you really take notice of what you’re doing during the day. Perhaps you’ll discover that you really don’t care all that much for a food you eat regularly (but you’ve been eating on autopilot and haven’t noticed your changing taste), or discover a beautiful but easily overlooked flower on your normal walking path.
Ask Why. The next time you make a decision or choice, ask yourself, “Why?” For example, if you’re shopping for groceries and you pick up a particular brand of bread, ask why you chose that brand, or perhaps why you’re buying loaf bread at all. Once you have an answer, ask “why” again, and so on. Continue until you’ve gotten to the heart of the decision, or at least for five repetitions.
Asking “why” is a good way to jolt yourself out of habitual behavior. It shows you how many assumptions, habits and biases go into every day decisions. It also makes you really think about your reasons for doing things, or your lack thereof. Doing this exercise regularly over time will encourage you to think critically and consciously about your choices and make intentional (rather than habitual) thinking the norm.