An Intro to Intentional Living (How To Stop Living on Autopilot)

It seems like everybody is talking about intentional living lately, but what does it really mean? And why does it even matter?

I’m so glad you asked.

I’m passionate about intentional living, ever since I “discovered it” a decade or so ago, and it changed my life. Here’s the short story:

Like most women, my twenties were busy—I was going to school, building a career, and paying off a mortgage. I was working hard and it was exhausting, but I thought that was normal. 

Being tired and overwhelmed is just part of being an adult, right? 

Or so I told myself. Deep down, something inside me was screaming “this isn’t right!” but I didn’t have the time or energy to listen. I was too worried about keeping my head above water.

"An Intro to Intentional Living How to Stop Living on Autopilot" in a white box woman wearing a grey sweater and jeans sitting on a sofa in the background.

Life on Autopilot (My Story)

Life was “go, go, go” and it felt like I was always behind. I was too busy to investigate that niggling voice, so I shut it down. Instead, I kept my eyes on the prize—everything from new shoes to a new house. 

I thought that having and doing more was the secret to finally feeling successful, but was it working? Not really. In truth, I was chasing so many things, but I felt like I was barely getting by. I had no idea what I really wanted or if my many sacrifices were even worth it. 

Did I need to own a house? Did I like being married? Why was I working 60 hours a week? What did I want to do with my life?

Who knows! I wasn’t asking these question. Instead, I was just focused on getting through the week: How could I get through another boring day at the office? Did I have enough in the bank to pay the mortgage? When would I get caught up on my sleep?

I daydreamed about being somewhere else or even being someone else, but I never really thought about doing something else. It didn’t feel possible because I felt trapped in my life, and the idea of change made me uncomfortable. 

Looking back, this was a clear sign that I needed to take a deeper look—but I didn’t. Instead, it was easier to continue living on autopilot. I made life decisions (both big and small) based on what everyone else was doing, and I let the momentum of these choices drag through life. 

Days rolled into weeks, and weeks rolled into years. It felt like life was passing me by … until I learned about intentional living. Here’s what you need to know.

Note that this blog post was originally published in 2016. I have since updated it to include the many lessons I’ve learned since then.

What Is Intentional Living?

INTENTIONAL LIVING IS ABOUT EXAMINING YOUR ‘WHY’

Intentional living is asking yourself why you do things—and then being happy with the answers. Here are just a few questions to consider.

  • Why are your friends, your friends?
  • Why did you buy [insert your latest purchase]?
  • Why did you choose your career/job?
  • Why are you with your partner?
  • Why are you working late?

Note how your answers make you feel? Do they make sense? Or are they confusing or conflicting? Did you struggle to answer some of these questions?

Living with intention means closely examining your choices in life and, if you’re not happy with what you see, making changes accordingly. 

RELATED POST: 7 Questions to Inspire Intentional Living

INTENTIONAL LIVING IS NOT ABOUT HAVING EVERYTHING FIGURED OUT

Intentional living doesn’t mean you have to have your whole life figured out…But it DOES mean having a purpose behind your actions.

Consider the following two statements:

“I’m taking a creative writing class because I want to write the Great American novel before I’m thirty.”

“I’m taking a creative writing class because I feel inspired when I’m exploring my creativity, and I’m considering writing a book one day.”

These are both examples of intentional living—even though the first person probably has a ten-year plan, and the second person is still deciding what to make for dinner!

Know that you can choose to be intentional about your direction without knowing your final destination. No one has everything figured out, and that’s OK. You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK too. 

Mistakes are how we learn but living with intention means our lessons serve a purpose. We’re choosing to experiment with our lives. It’s messy and scary work, but it’s what moves us forward, in the direction of our dreams. But nothing changes unless you find the courage to take the first step.

How To Live Intentionally

EVERYTHING STARTS WITH YOUR CORE VALUES + VISION

You know that whole ‘direction/destination thing’ you just read? Your core values are the key to choosing your direction. You don’t need to have your whole life figured out, but you DO need to know what matters most to you.

Everyone’s core values are different. Mine include: care for myself, care for my relationships, lifelong learning, and freedom (just to name a few). These values inform my life vision, which in turn, guides my choices. 

I reflect on my values and vision every single day. It’s simple really—define what matters to you and then, do whatever you can to align your life accordingly. 

If you have no idea what your core values are, start by thinking of moments when you’ve felt proud or happy, and then dig around. Generally, we feel good when we are living and acting in line with our values, and we feel bad when we violate our values. Or if you’re still confused about your values, then this will help.

When you know your core values, you can make sure the life you’re living on the outside matches what your heart is saying on the inside. This is where the magic begins! 

NEXT, ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY

A huge part of intentional living is accepting that you have the power to change. This is where I was stuck for a very long time. I wasn’t ready to make hard choices. Instead, staying put was easier (at least in the short term).

I told myself things like:

  • Life isn’t supposed to be fun.
  • This is just the way things are.
  • I’m ‘adulting’—this is what it means to be a grown-up.

… And then, I’d use these one-liners as excuses to live an ordinary life.

Of course, this doesn’t mean denying reality. I know that we all face obstacles (some people considerably more than others) and there will always be things beyond our control. Life is undoubtedly hard for many people. 

I’ve been there. My father suffered severe brain trauma when I was in my early teens, and my mother struggled to provide him with full-time care, while also supporting us all. There were many days when I came home to eviction notices taped to my front door. 

It wasn’t a great situation but what’s worse is that I let these challenges define me—and not in a good way. I had a victim mentality for a long time, and this limited me far more than my financial and family situation. 

It took courage to finally acknowledge that there were other options, despite the problems in my life. I just had to be willing to do hard work, face criticism, and make tough choices. I slowly learned that I couldn’t control everything in my life, but this didn’t mean that I was completely powerless—and neither are you. 

A woman wearing a grey sweater and jeans sitting on a sofa holding a cup of coffee

MAKE SMALL, REPEATED DECISIONS

Intentional living is about making the decision every day to live the life you want most. If you don’t have the resources, like time or money, It’s fine to start small. Sometimes it’s even better that way because consistency and perseverance are what matter most in the long run. 

For example, if you want to be an artist, you could make the big decision to go to art school. It’s a lovely opportunity, but please know that this act, on its own, will not change the course of your life or make you an artist. 

You become an artist by picking up a paintbrush, or a sketchbook, and making art every day (even if it sucks). You can do this at art school, or you can do it at your kitchen counter while your kids are napping. 

Now a word of warning: intentional living is not about perfection. You will fall off the wagon, you will make mistakes, and there will probably be times when you go months without doing the things you love. Life comes in seasons, so be kind to yourself. 

In a sense, getting lost and finding a way back to your purpose is part of intentional living. It’s a lifelong practice—with an emphasis on the practice. It’s asking yourself, every day, “What can I do that will point me in the direction of my dreams?”

Intentional living is deciding to go for a run in the morning or to bring a packed lunch. It’s saying ‘no’ to disposable coffee cups and instead, bringing a reusable from home. It’s getting on the floor and spending ten minutes with your children, without distractions.

It’s about tuning out the expectations and the noise and instead, making a conscious decision to elevate your life priorities—even when the world is trying to distract you. 

Need ideas to help you begin? Check out 7 Simple Ways To Start Living Intentionally or 4 Creative Exercises to Inspire Intentional Living

THERE ARE NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWERS

Intentional living is about being honest and doing what feels right for you. There are no right or wrong answers as long as you’re true to your authentic self. 

Don’t compare your life to friends, family, or strangers on the Internet. Stop judging yourself against an arbitrary timeline for success. Instead, consider this your permission slip to create your own schedule. 

And remember, mistakes are proof that you’re truly living. A life well-lived is a messy life but in a beautiful way. It won’t always be easy, but it’s better than living on autopilot, merely existing and watching the world from the sidelines. 

RELATED POST: 25 Intentional Living Quotes: Inspiration for a Life Well Lived

INTENTIONAL LIVING IS A CONTINUOUS PROCESS

There is a popular urban myth in Australia about the Sydney Harbour Bridge. According to legend, the painters never stop. When they get to one end, they simply go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true, which is a shame because it’s an excellent analogy for an intentional life.

There is no finish line. Living with intention means being in constant communication with yourself, deciding what’s working (and what’s not), and making small adjustments every day.

It’s hard work but it’s the best kind—creating a life you truly love.

RELATED POST: 10 Intentional Living Books Worth Reading

Free Intentional Living Challenge

If you want to take the next step towards intentional living, then I invite you to join With Intention

With Intention is a FREE challenge for anyone who is feeling stuck and needs help taking the very first steps towards simple and intentional living.

Over the course of a week, I’ll take you through the pivotal moments of my personal journey towards simple and intentional living. You’ll get four emails with personal stories, the lessons I learned, and simple activities YOU can do to live With Intention.

Over 1,400 people have taken the challenge and started living With Intention. Will you join them? Click here to join (it’s free!) or to find out more. 

How do you feel about your ‘why’? Are you ready for a change in direction, or are you happy where you’re going? How are you living with intention today? Let me know in the comments! 

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20 thoughts on “An Intro to Intentional Living (How To Stop Living on Autopilot)”

  1. Hi Jennifer! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/38449f503b75c674fce584923194f67211c31bb3b34ed37e3fac919471fc97e4.jpg

    I am so, so happy I found your blog! I’ve felt for a long time that I’m just aimlessly floating through life, going from one thing to the next just because the opportunity appeared. I am now on a journey to become a more deliberate person, documenting the journey through my own blog. Your posts are extremely inspiring and speak directly to my soul!

    Keep it up, you’re amazing.

    Hannah, aka the Optiminimalist

    Reply
  2. I definitely need a change in my life and I’m glad that I found this article! This explains so well what I’ve been missing since I often tell myself this is the life of an adult. I go to a job that makes me miserable every day and live a life that feels like there’s no purpose.

    I will be trying your tips to find where it should change and how to make me happy. Thank you!!!

    Reply
  3. I LOVE THIS! Such awesome advice on how to start living with intention. I feel like the hard part is just getting started- that is where people get stuck. The piece about making small repeated decisions really resonated with me. I feel that living with intention is an everyday choice and like you said, a continuous process. I have a blog that you might like to check out called lunachicks.org at http://www.lunachicklife.blogspot.com. I talk about some of the same things! Thanks so much for this 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Alli! Thanks so much for your comment. I definitely agree – getting started is often the hardest bit. The good news is once you get started with small changes, the momentum really helps carry your forward 🙂 And I had a look at your blog – it’s great! I really enjoyed reading your posts, thank you so much for sharing your perspectives. I think sharing our stories is so powerful . x Jen

      Reply
  4. Hi! Ive been sniffing around these subjects of intentional living and minimalism for what feels like forever without really doing much but Your artist v artist school analogy has really stuck in my brain. This is so what I do, I buy the makeup brushes so I can be good at makeup I buy the gym membership so I can be fit I buy the recipe books so I can be a great cook etc etc etc but none of this makes me anything except feel guilty about my lack of achievement re said wishes. It’s so obvious but I couldn’t see it clearly. Thank you very much. I’m finding your blog really helpful 🙂 I feel like I finally know how to start 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Suzanne! I’m so sorry I missed your comment!! Thanks you so much for your feedback and I’m so glad this post spoke to you. I used to be exactly the same way (and I’m not always immune now.) It’s definitely a continual process and I’m always tweaking things here and there! Good luck with everything and thank you again for commenting and sharing your story xo

      Reply
  5. Too many people accept the 9-5 as the norm, the necessary, without even considering the alternatives. I think you’ve covered some really important points so consider it shared 🙂 Thanks for writing!

    Reply
  6. Your post reminds me of The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte. Have you read it yet? It can be a really great way to hone in on your wants/needs/intentions + desires. I feel like it’s an ongoing project and I keep changing/tweaking what my desires are. So, yeah, it’s good for you to say that it’s a con’t process, because it sooo is. Even when I think I have them – I have my “goals”. I end up changing my mind 3-6 months later. Life happens and then I’m like, “wait a minute…what I really mean is…” Cheers for a great post!

    Reply
    • Hey Lani! Nope, I haven’t read it but it’s on my list; I’ve heard a lot about it and I think I’d enjoy it! Thanks for the reminder 🙂 And yep, it’s totally a process isn’t it? My intentions have actually stayed mostly the same for the past few years, but for me it’s more that I need to remind myself of them. I’ll know that x is for my focus and where I want to be heading, but I’ll get distracted by something else and just forget about x for a while … if that makes sense?! Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts (and for the reading reminder!) x

      Reply
  7. I know I say this all the time, but I love this post Jen! I actually had no clue what I was swinging towards was considered intentional living. But it just sounds so freaking POWERFUL, ya know? Being able to figure out why you do the things you do is an important step to making you happy. Or at least making me happy. Thanks so much for the post, I’m going to sit down with these questions this week. 🙂

    Reply
  8. This was a great post, Jen! I loved many of the points you brought up: not figuring it all out, starting with core values, continually working at it, & especially taking responsibility. That last one resonated with me as it’s indeed harder to face our choices than to bury our heads in denial. Hope you have a good week!

    Reply

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