The Many Definitions Of Wealth

Posted by Josh | Posted in Finance / Economics, Productivity, Psychology | Posted on 05-05-2014

0

When someone says they are “wealthy”, what does that really mean?

If you think about it, the word “wealth” likely has very different meanings to different people.

For some, they will follow the dictionary definition of “a large amount of money and possessions”. Perhaps they desire a fleet of expensive cars, or an enormous house on a large property. Or, maybe they want to pull a Scrooge McDuck and take a swim in their piles of money.

But for others, the definition of being wealthy may have a simpler meaning. Perhaps they desire the ability to leave their boring day-to-day job and travel the world. Or, be free to pursue their dream career of writing cheap supermarket romance novels. Some may want to find a small homestead in the wilderness and subsist off the land, without any outside contact. Still others may want to open their own small business.

None of these necessarily means you need to have a lot of money, nor do they entail having a lot of material possessions.

I would argue that the truest definition of wealth is closer to the second set of examples. Being wealthy means that you are able to spend your time and energy as you desire, rather than simply trade your labor for the goods required to maintain your life. For example, if you are able to live comfortably on a minimal salary, and as a result can take work as a freelance writer on a part time basis, you free up considerable time for pursuing whatever projects suit your whimsy. I don't think anyone would call such a person wealthy by society's normal definition, but if you ask them, I would suspect they would say they feel wealthy.

Take, for example, the story of Trent from The Simple Dollar. In 2008, he quit his full time job and started working at home full time writing and doing other smaller scale jobs. An explicit reason for his choosing this was because he saw his children growing up, and wanted to spend more time with them. Between his regular daytime job and working on his blog, he found his days become every fuller. So, he chose to cut the cord from his nine-to-five job and focus on his dream. Years and many, many posts later, he certainly seems to be doing well. While I don't know Trent, I would guess that if you asked him, he would probably agree with the statement that in the broadest sense of the word, his life is certainly full of wealth. It's an inspiring story, and one that I would love to some day follow.

I think that becoming wealthy in this sense is really all about focus and sacrifice.

It requires focus, in the sense that you need to keep that goal of financial independence in your mind at all times. Remind yourself every morning what it is you are working for, be it the ability to spend more time with your children, or start that small business you've always wanted. Keep these reminders close by, so that they never slip from your mind.

It also requires sacrifice, in that you need to be able to give up the ability to spend your money, time, or effort on things that don't get you closer to that goal. Life is full of random temptations, and while I'm not suggesting that you become a slave to your goal, it's foolish to think that you can simply carry on living on a whim, rather than carefully considering the minute-by-minute decisions and actions that move you closer to where you want to be.

I think that the notion of wealth today has been twisted by the reality-TV / tabloid driven media such that many view the excessive lifestyles of the super-rich with great envy. I wonder though, if we all got back to basics and thought about the things that are truly important to us, and what we would do with our lives given freedom from reliance on our paychecks every two weeks, if a more achievable and simpler vision of being wealthy might emerge.

Productivity Advice From A Bygone Era

Posted by Josh | Posted in Productivity | Posted on 01-16-2014

0

I was just reading an article on one of my favorite blogs, The Art Of Manliness, which is basically the text of a book on productivity book called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day” by Arnold Bennett. In today’s flood of “productivity p0rn”, this book sets itself apart, despite being written over a century ago (1910, to be specific). I thought it would be fun to quote a couple passages and reflect on them a bit.

The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one’s life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one’s daily budget of twenty-four hours is the calm realisation of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands.

Bennett aptly describes how one of the most difficult things about productively using your spare time is just how little of it you have. I’ve written previously about my own realization of this fact, and how it radically changed my priorities. Like it or not, our lives are bound by time, and no matter how much you would like to, we extend ourselves beyond that. Choosing what to do with your time is hard and requires careful consideration if you are going to do it wisely.

But when you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman) what happens? You rush to the suburbs; you spare no toil to make yourself glorious in fine raiment; you rush back to town in another train; you keep yourself on the stretch for four hours, if not five; you take her home; you take yourself home. You don’t spend three-quarters of an hour in “thinking about” going to bed. You go.

When we face a task that we truly value, like an important date with someone we care deeply about, we don’t waste our time pondering about what to do next or how exactly to accomplish things; we think for a bit, then we act. The old phrase “paralysis by analysis” has a lot of truth to it. We can spend enormous amounts of time thinking about doing something worthwhile, or wandering aimlessly around the web. But if we don’t force ourselves to take action, we will never accomplish anything.

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent.

This is why I fell in love with the science of human behavior, and to this day greatly enjoy learning about how we think. To say that we are victims of our emotions and whims is simply false; one can absolutely learn to use reason and logic to examine and fundamentally change how we think. There is nothing more powerful than using the might of our minds for our own purpose, nor nothing more destructive than our thoughts run wild.

Man, know thyself. I say it out loud. The phrase is one of those phrases with which everyone is familiar, of which everyone acknowledges the value, and which only the most sagacious put into practice. I don’t know why. I am entirely convinced that what is more than anything else lacking in the life of the average well-intentioned man of to-day is the reflective mood.

Self reflection is probably one of the most important habits we can cultivate in our daily lives. The great Roman philosopher Seneca said that we should “retire into [ourselves] as much as possible.” Being conscious of and evaluating our actions and habits can bring about change in our lives like no other act. I make it a point to write in my journal for a few minutes every morning, even if it is simply noting down some highlights from the previous day. Looking back on events, I’m often amazed at the revelations I have about how I could have acted differently. It is only by shining the light on ourselves in a thoughtful and prescriptive manner that we can fully realize our potential.

The book illustrates how truly great advice can be timeless. Despite being written in an era drastically different from our own, the book is filled with salient points. The language, while somewhat formal, is often witty and entertaining. A highly recommended read, especially considering its short length.

The Powerful Effect Of Preconceived Notions (And Letting Them Go)

Posted by Josh | Posted in Psychology | Posted on 01-12-2014

0

Every day we go into life with expectations about how things will occur. These beliefs have an astounding impact on our perceptions of and reactions to the world around us, often times without us even being aware.

Think you’re immune? Just see if any of these scenarios strikes a chord with you.

You get a request to attend a meeting at work to discuss something, and even before you walk into the room you think to yourself “This person never has anything useful to say. This is a total waste of time.” In the meeting, you are quick to interrupt, dismissive, and don’t take the time to listen carefully and understand the other side of the conversation. As a result, things don’t get moved forward, and several people come away with a clear negative impression of you.

A friend whom you have not spoken to in quite a while calls you, and when you see the number you think “What does (she | he) want? We haven’t talked in ages, so why would they call now? They probably just need a favor.” You don’t answer and as a result, miss an invitation to a baby shower (for a baby you still don’t know about).

When trying to put one child down for a nap, the other comes into the room and starts to ask you a question. Without thinking you tell them they “can’t be in here because I’m trying to put your (brother | sister) to sleep. You can’t have my attention all the time!” The other child gets upset with you and storms out, shouting “I just wanted to help put my (brother | sister) to sleep! Why are you always so mean?!”

When we allow these expectations to override our senses (and with them, often our better judgement) we set ourselves up to miss out on an amazing number of opportunities for positive interactions in our lives. And while it’s not necessarily easy to overcome this habit (when are habits ever easy to change), the fundamental principles aren’t that difficult to understand.

First, be conscious of these tendencies and their role in your behavior. At every chance you can, ask yourself, “What do I expect to happen here? Why do I expect that? Could something else happen?” Cultivating awareness is probably the hardest task, as we are so used to simply reacting to things without thought. If you know ahead of time that a potentially difficult situation is coming up (think about the time before that meeting), it might be a good idea to scribble some things down on paper. The simple kinetic act of putting our thoughts on paper can be amazingly illustrative. What sounded perfectly logical in our minds looks absolutely ludicrous once we actually spell it out.

Second, work to change the underlying negative scripts that support the beliefs in the first place. When you find yourself saying “My kid always needs my attention. Why can’t they just leave me alone? Can’t they see I need to take care of the other kids?”, try changing it to “Boy, my kid sure does love to spend time with me. How can I let them be a part of what I’m doing while not neglecting the other kids?” Here again, I think writing these thoughts down (both the old and the new) can be a difference maker. Our thoughts hold incredible power over us, so we may as well learn to turn them to our advantage.

When we let go of our preconceived ideas about things, the change is results can be monumental.

Instead of an un-productive meeting, a wonderful discussion ensues with all sides contributing, and a project is put firmly back on track thanks to the cooperative attitudes of everyone. You learn several new things, and everyone is impressed with your open-mindedness and listening ability.

Instead of missing out on an important occasion in your friend’s life, you get to congratulate them on their news and end up talking with them for over an hour about each others’ lives. As a result you make plans to get together after work and a friendship is rekindled.

Instead of having one tired child (who is now more awake thanks to the shouting match) and one child who now sees you as uninterested in them, you experience an incredibly tender moment where your older child sings a lullaby to your younger one, kisses them, and tells them how much they love them.

Don’t go through life blindly listening to your own expectations. Examine them, question them, and drop them by the wayside if they aren’t helping you lead a happier, productive life.

Why We Make Bad Choices – Cognitive Dissonance

Posted by Josh | Posted in Psychology | Posted on 01-08-2014

Tags:

0

This is a post in an ongoing series about the tricks our minds play on us which cause us to make poor decisions (known in psychology as cognitive biases). Learning about how we perceive and interpret the world around us is a critical part of self reflection, so I want to take some time and explain things in (hopefully) clear, understandable terms. While I’m going to use a fair amount of the language of psychology, I will also do my best to define things in ways those of us without degrees in the subject can understand. As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments if things aren’t clear.

Here we introduce the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is a key idea to understand for the rest of the series. It is summarized fairly easily as follows: when we hold two conflicting ideas, beliefs, or attitudes, we experience mental discomfort that we will naturally want to resolve.

I know, it sounds like pure psychobabble. But bear with me, as it truly is important to understand this.

Let’s say you are on a diet, but one day you slip up and eat several slices of greasy, delicious pepperoni pizza. Immediately afterwards, you feel guilty about your actions. One one hand, you hold the belief that you are a person capable of staying on a diet (because who wants to admit that they have no willpower); on the other hand, you just ate a slice of pizza, and you also know in your heart that pizza is far from a healthy food. This contradiction (“I eat healthy” versus “Pizza is bad for you”) causes you to experience mental angst.

The only way to resolve this is to change one or both beliefs so that they are no longer incompatible with each other. How we do this varies depending upon many things, but we’ll try to illustrate two possibilities.

First, we might minimize or belittle the idea that pizza is bad for you. Perhaps we think “Well, a couple slices isn’t that bad. I dabbed off some grease so the fat content must be lower.” If the pizza is no longer so unhealthy, then eating it doesn’t mean we broke our rule of eating only nutritious food.

Second, we might lessen the strictness or specificity of our belief that we eat healthily. Instead of “I eat a healthy diet”, we might substitute “I try to eat healthily, but I don’t do it all the time.” If we no longer believe that we are someone who always eats healthful food, then eating fatty pizza doesn’t contradict that carefully constructed image of ourselves.

Are either of these inherently bad ways of dealing with the discord between our two beliefs? You could probably argue on both sides. On the one hand, pepperoni pizza is likely unhealthy any way you look at it, but on the other hand giving ourselves permission to circumvent good behavior without specific reasons is not a good way to instill new habits.

What’s more important is simple awareness of this tendency, and considering it when reflecting upon our lives and the decisions we make. As you’ll come to see, this statement will likely be repeated throughout the series. If you gain nothing else from reading these posts, learn to be conscious of how our minds work. Understanding this is crucial, and it’s why I truly believe that everyone should learn a little bit of psychology. After all, what’s more important than knowing ourselves as human beings?

In the coming weeks and months we are going to learn more about the specific ways in which our mind tricks us and causes us to ignore or misinterpret important things in the world around us. Stay tuned, it should be an interesting ride.

Books That Changed My Life – Raising Resilient Children

Posted by Josh | Posted in Psychology, Reading | Posted on 12-29-2013

0

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

I would say that it is no exaggeration that my children are the single most important thing in my life. Becoming a parent has profoundly changed my outlook on life in more ways than I can count. There is no more important job than raising my children to be successful, kind, compassionate members of society, and it is one both my wife and I take very seriously.

With that in mind, I make it a point to read books on various subjects around the general theme of parenting and healthy childhood development. And while my background in psychology means I could certainly understand the more theoretical and academic works, in my world of limited time I tend to heavily favor those with a decided practical slant. And I must say, that is one area where this post’s book shines.

Raising Resilient Children is a beautifully (yet concisely) worded series of chapters on how to impart your children with, well, resiliency. How does one define this? While the authors describe several areas, I’d like to focus mainly on one.

Resilient children are able to overcome problems and obstacles they face. As a parent it is natural to want to see your child sail through life with nary a bump, but the reality is that this is neither practical nor desirable. Even if through some extremely overzealous form of “helicopter parenting” one was able to see their child avoid any hint of difficulty, the result would be a person incapable of living in the real world. What we instead want is to give our children the tools with which they can navigate the inevitable bruises of life using problem solving and a healthy dose of hard work.

The authors describe a series of principles which will help teach children how best to weather the challenges of life. Each chapter first lays out challenges we face as a parent in adopting these practices, then offers specific guidelines on how to overcome them. For example, let’s look at one obstacle mentioned in the section on teaching our children to be empathic.

The authors note that many parents believe that showing empathy equates to showing weakness. That is, by listening to and validating the feelings of our children, we are somehow allowing them to get the better of us. They give several examples from their own experience, which is helpful in that it can help us identify with parents dealing with similar struggles. The authors go on to give helpful advice on how one can express empathy but still set firm limits with children.

The book also encourages a lot of self-reflection, that is that parents can and should routinely look at how they are behaving and what effect it has on their children. The authors often will ask some simple, yet profoundly perspective shifting questions. For example, in the same section discussed briefly above, they ask:

Am I saying or doing things in a way that would make my children the most receptive to listening to what I have to say and learning from me?

Would I want anyone to speak with me in the way I am speaking with my children?

What do my children think about the choices I make for them?

As parents we are human and subject to the same biases, mistakes, and occasional blow-ups as everyone else. We often feel pressure to show strength and authority, but neglect to see things from the perspective of the very people we are working so hard for: our children. This book helped me to recognize that being strong does not mean being a disciplinarian; rather, it means accepting our children for who they are, showing them our love through understanding and gentle guidance, and teaching them the means to be successful in whatever pursuits they desire.

The Amazing Productive Value Of Five Minutes

Posted by Josh | Posted in Productivity | Posted on 12-25-2013

Tags:

0

Sometimes, the most powerful changes we can make in our lives are surprisingly small.

An excellent example of this is how much more productive we can be in our lives just by recapturing the little periods of time in between major activities. Let’s say that I’ve put on some water to boil for tea, and I know that between the water heating and the tea steeping, there will be around five minutes of useful free time before my tea is ready.

Now, in the past I’ve typically used this time to browse Facebook, or perhaps read an article on Feedly, or just surf the web aimlessly. This wasn’t intentional use of my time, because I didn’t feel that “wasting” that tiny amount of time really meant anything. After all, what can you really do in five minutes?

There’s two main problems with this way of thinking.

First, there tends to be a lot of these little chunks of time throughout the day, and they add up quickly. I haven’t collected any real data, but it would not surprise me if, in a typical day, there were upwards of five or six of these periods. That comes out to almost half an hour of time that ultimately gets wasted. What would happen if you spent another half hour a day reading that book you’re trying to finish?

Second, there are absolutely ways to be productive and useful in five minutes or less. Yes, it’s true, the short time is limiting, especially in terms of activities which have a ramp up time (like writing, for example, where I clearly do better after getting into a groove). But if you look at your to-do list(s) (because you are maintaining stuff there, right?), you will surely find a number of little pesky chores that need to be done. Putting dishes away, responding to an e-mail (marginally acceptable, this really should be done in batch), wiping down the counters… the list goes on.

I’ve worked very hard to break this habit over the last month or so, with some very positive results. I’m far from perfect, but it’s clear that the habit of being intentional is just as important with short periods of time as it is in the grand scheme of things. So the next time you find yourself standing around waiting for the microwave to finish, instead of pulling out your phone and checking on the latest updates, pick some small bit of work and get it done.

How Writing Things Down Keeps Us Positive

Posted by Josh | Posted in Psychology | Posted on 12-22-2013

1

I want you to try a little exercise with me. It won’t take long, but I do insist that you try it in real time while reading this. You will need a paper and pen, or some other kind of medium for recording things. Ready? Okay, here we go.

I want you to think of and write down the first five negative memories you have of recent interactions with others. They can be your children, your spouse, or people at work. Don’t go into detail, just five quick sentences or descriptions.

All set? Good, now, repeat the same exercise, except with the first five positive memories. When you are done, keep reading. Don’t worry, the Internet will wait.

Now ask yourself a few simple questions. Were you able to think of five things in both cases? Which was harder to recall, the positive or the negative ones?

If you found it easier to remember the negative memories, don’t feel bad. As it turns out, our brains are hard-wired to recall negative memories far more easily than positive ones. It’s called the negativity bias, and it’s a well known psychological behavior.

I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. At the end of the day at work I can often only recall the frustrations or negative interactions I’ve had. Even when talking about my children, whom I am incredibly grateful to have in my life, I’ve found it’s entirely too easy to focus on negative behaviors. As a result, I often miss out or discount the many small positive things that happen on a daily basis.

I overcome a major challenge at work, but all I can remember is looking over a poor design for an upcoming project and how angry it made me feel (I’m a bit of a “do-righter”, but that’s another story).

I take a walk in the woods with my young son and we spend nearly an hour wandering around learning to identity the different kinds of trees, but all I can remember is how he was too rough with his little sister after lunch.

My wife leaves a little note for me saying how much she appreciates my helping out with the kids, but all I can remember is how she chided me for not finishing some task around the house on time.

Fortunately, with a little intentional behavior, this tendency can be overcome.

First, make note of these small positive occurrences when they happen. When I say “make note”, I mean that quite literally. It’s fine to be more mindful of these things and enjoy them in the moment, but to really be effective I’ve found I must record them somewhere, before they get lost in the jumble of events my brain processes. In the digital age I do this by sending myself an e-mail, snapping a photo, or making a note in Evernote with my mobile device. A small notepad would certainly work too. The exact method isn’t important, so long as it gets the memory out of your head.

Second, create a habit of reviewing these tiny but crucial moments at the end of the day. It’s refreshing and rejuvenating to see these little moments revisited, and it helps to end the day on a positive note. This doesn’t need to take a long time, perhaps five or ten minutes.

Try this habit for a week, and see if your mood and perception doesn’t shift. As an added bonus, you’ll be building up a reservoir of good things that happen to you, which is a powerful thing to have when your life hits an inevitable rough patch. By reminding ourselves of all that is good in our lives, we develop better resiliency and ability to work through the difficulties we face. Memory is a powerful thing, especially when selectively focused.

Books That Changed My Life – The Feeling Good Handbook

Posted by Josh | Posted in Reading | Posted on 12-18-2013

Tags:

0

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

Today, I want to be open and honest about a fairly dark period in my life. It’s important that we reflect on these times, so that we may learn from them and make ourselves more resilient. Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it, and while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

During my second and third years in college, I went through what in hindsight was a period of fairly deep clinical depression. I was often melancholy, unmotivated, and (despite being surrounded by a wonderful group of friends) lonely. The cult of macho surrounding my fraternity boy existence demanded strength, so I hid my feelings and pushed them aside. I felt lost, and wondered why everyone else seemed so happy and successful, when I doomed to a life of perpetual failure.

It took some time and a few fairly harsh experiences for me to realize that I could not solve this on my own. I felt ashamed, but knew that I must seek help if I was to break free. Thankfully, I found a wonderful psychologist who helped teach me why I felt the way I did, and importantly, how I could change the way I thought. The connection between thoughts and emotions, while not obvious to me at the time, sparked an intuitive reaction that motivated me to learn more. And the more I read, the more I understood how critical our patterns of thought were to our well being.

Which brings us to the book I’m writing about today, The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.

By the time I got to this book, I’d already read a number of others on the subject of Cognitive Behavioral therapy, such as Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, so I was fairly well versed in the theory that our thoughts can have a pronounced effect on how we feel. But Burns’ book was by far the most well written and practical of the bunch, and the result was nothing short of amazing. The idea is that by simply applying some reflection and logic to our thoughts, we can generate dramatic changes in our mood and the way we perceive the world around us. Sound like snake oil? I thought so too, until I tried it.

It turns out that we humans tend to think in extremely illogical ways. For example, when we forget to respond to a client e-mail, we might think “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that! My boss is upset and I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” In that one stream of thought are three brilliant examples of what Burns calls cognitive distortions. These are ways that we warp our patterns of thought in ways that distort reality, often in ways that make things appear a lot worse than they really are.

  1. “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that!” – Ah, the should statement. What a useless word! All it does is create shame and regret. We cannot change what we have done, and hindsight is always perfect, so what good does it do to retroactively criticize ourselves?
  2. My boss is upset…” – So, you can now read minds? Perhaps your boss is upset, but you can’t know until you speak to them.
  3. “…I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” – Now you can predict the future? How do you know for sure that this one incident will knock you out of the competition?

I don’t think that it is possible to describe how powerful the impact of becoming conscious of, and later learning to direct, my thoughts was on my life. Besides affecting a profound change in my emotional well being, it greatly influenced my ultimate choice of college major (psychology), knowledge I (despite being in a totally unrelated field) still make daily use of.

How We Create Our Own Stress

Posted by Josh | Posted in Psychology | Posted on 12-15-2013

0

Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve written before about how kids can be amazing teachers if we just let them, and this week yet another example of that came to pass.

It was later in the evening, and I was in the process of giving my son a bath. It had been a trying day at work, so my mind was drained and it was all I could do to keep up with the boundless energy of a four year old. My son is an extremely perceptive little guy, so he noticed that his dad was a little less talkative than usual.

Him: Daddy, why are you so tired?

Me: Sorry buddy, Daddy had a really crazy day at work.

Him: Why did you make your day at work so crazy Daddy?

Me: No buddy. Daddy didn’t.. pause

I was about to say “No buddy. Daddy didn’t make his day at work crazy, all the <insert various mean but yet appropriate for kid words here> at Daddy’s work made his day crazy.” But his question made me think: did the people at work really make my day crazy, or was it how I chose to react that caused the problem?

If you think about it, we’ve all probably been guilty of this classic mistaken attribution of our bad days at some point. “That guy really ruined my day!” “If only my flight were on time, I wouldn’t be so stressed out!” “That damn kid, if he would just leave me alone I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood!”

All of these responses, while completely natural, are based on a fundamentally flawed idea – that the things that happen to us determine our own response.

The jerk at the coffee shop this morning didn’t make you angry, you got upset because you felt he was disrespecting you and the other customers. The flight being late didn’t stress you out, your worry about not being on time did. And the kid demanding your attention? Well, perhaps you hold a belief that he should be more independent at his age, or that you deserve some quiet time to yourself, and his threatening that makes you uncomfortable.

Mind you, I don’t want to imply that merely being aware of this fact will allow you to flow through life with the calmness of a Vulcan. Nor am I saying that one should feel bad about reacting to life’s little challenges in a, well, human way. Being aware of our thoughts and how they affect us is not the same as the ability to turn those thoughts in a more productive direction. But awareness is certainly key, and a valuable skill to have in your emotional toolkit.

The next time you feel yourself becoming angry, or your blood pressure rising, take a moment to consider what is going through your mind, and how it is affecting your emotions. Consider carefully if you are creating your own stress, and if so, if it is really a productive use of your energy. We have so many things to do and so little time to do them; why add more unnecessary tension?

The Power Of Living The Intentional Life

Posted by Josh | Posted in Productivity | Posted on 12-10-2013

1

in·ten·tion [in-ten-shuhn]

noun

  1. an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result.

  2. the end or object intended; purpose.

From dictionary.com

It is far too easy to coast through life without determined direction. Especially in today’s world of endless distractions (anyone ever try the random article feature of Wikipedia?), one can drift from action to action without giving so much as a thought as to a higher goal or purpose.

I fall prey to this from time to time (perhaps more often than I’d like to admit). Take this scenario: I’ll open an article to read, which links to another, then another, then another. I’m a very intense reader, such that I easily get lost in the sea of words without much sense of time passing. I look up, and before I know it, hours have passed and I have little to show for it except having increased my knowledge around some random area of interest, and a lingering feeling of guilt over having not been more productive.

I’d like to pause here, and let you consider your reaction to the above passage. What questions would you ask me? Would you say, “But what’s wrong with reading? Don’t you think reading is a wonderful way to increase one’s knowledge? Would you have us all be machines who simple churn out production every hour of the day?”

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Understand, I am not saying that spending time (even a lot of time) reading random wikipedia articles about the 2007 Asian women’s junior handball championship is, in and of itself, a bad thing. I love reading, and think that it is an absolutely crucial part of lifelong education. If you look at your goals and your lists, and you decide that the best use of your time is to learn about the history of a random Louisiana highway, then by all means, go forth and don’t feel an ounce of guilt.

What’s the difference, you might ask? Simple: in the second case the act was done in an intentional manner. There’s quite a difference between carefully choosing among various ways to spend your time (a most valuable and precious commodity), and letting whim take your by the leash and drag you wherever it chooses.

When I talk about “living the intentional life”, I mean to say that I strive to spend the limited hours of my life in a conscious and considered manner. I have goals that I want to achieve, and, whether it be to become a better father, publish a science fiction novel, or even have a clean set of clothes to wear come Monday morning, the only way to accomplish them is through calculated allocation of the one resource I control fully: my time.

“But where’s the fun,” you say. “Where’s the spontaneity in that?”

Let me be clear: living in an intentional manner in no way conflicts with embracing spontaneity.

Let me give an example. As I planned my day, I intended to spend several hours in the afternoon writing this post. When the time to begin came around, I sat down, closed all my browsers, shut the office door, and began writing. I was humming along nicely, when I noticed that it was snowing quite heavily outside my office window. At that moment, the goal of finishing this post became less important than spending some quality time playing in the snow with my young son. This was a conscious choice to deviate from my original intent for the sake of some impromptu fun, and I do not have one ounce of regret for making it. In fact, one of the reasons I was able to do this on a whim was because I had spent earlier time in the day wisely working on various tasks around the house. In this way, intention breeds spontaneity, instead of smothering it.

All you have to do in order to live with intent is to use your power of reason and will to direct your own activity. From time to time, stop whatever you are doing, and ask if this is really how you want to be spending what little time you have left on this Earth. If it be in pursuit of making an army of snow angels with your children, so be it. If it be working towards restoring that classic car you’ve always dreamed of, so be it. Even if it involves nothing more than sitting with a cup of tea and reading the tabloids, so be it. Free will is one of the most basic and powerful of all human abilities; use it wisely and there is nothing you cannot accomplish.