An Era of Intentions

One of my resolutions for this year is to be more intentional. I want to be more mindful, more thoughtful, and perhaps a bit more graceful. I’m tired of unconsciously falling into habits that I always end up regretting. I don’t want to satisfy my immediate needs only to realize later that I’ve made my long term needs more difficult to fulfill. I no longer want to find myself mindlessly stuck doing something unproductive because some alert made me pick up my phone, at which point my fingers unconsciously moved about in their familiar patterns. Instead I’ll be conscious of the choices I make and the actions I follow through on.

…Sound familiar?

There’s a reason why so many of us desire this lifestyle of purposefulness.

If there is one word to categorize the world we live in today, it’s “distraction”—the antithesis of all attempts to be thoughtful and considered. We’re surrounded by a neverending patchwork of buzzes, beeps, hums, dings, and all sorts of other noises. If our phones aren’t alerting us of an incoming text from a friend group or a message from the team at work, then another object within a 10 foot radius is jangling away to signal that something around us is changing. I’m not just talking about those smart devices connected to your home network. Think about your heater, which might blow a humming stream of air through the narrow openings of a vent, or the chair that creaks when someone shifts body weight upon it. At each sound, your ears are unconsciously perked and your mind will fire neurons to deduce the cause of that sound well before you can tell it to do otherwise. It’s hard to focus amidst all of these noises, isn’t it? Oh, right, it’s stressful, too.

That’s only the auditory channel. Our eyes don’t escape the pressure, either. They are lambasted by messages passing faster than we can read, from the scroll of our social media feeds to the billboards flashing outside of the windows. Forget about the subtler messaging flashing by (the signs above doors, the branded plastic bag that flew past the window in the blink of an eye.) Even the rest of our senses are just as easily distracted. Think of the heady smell of perfume from the immaculately suited woman who walked by, which moments later is replaced by the mouthwatering aroma of a bakery we just passed; the incredible warmth as we walk in the doorway that makes the piles of scarves, jackets, and hats we’ve donned increasingly uncomfortable; that aftertaste of the morning’s cup of coffee demanding something be done to cleanse the mouth, quickly followed by the rumbles of hunger that remind us: Hey, you haven’t had your breakfast yet.

Quote: It's hard to focus amidst all of those noises, isn't it?

We’re trained to do something about these messages from the very moment we realize we are uncomfortable. The maturation of technology from humble beginnings to unsurpassed pervasiveness has ushered in the era of immediacy that we’ve come to take for granted. Live feeds and live streams are but a finger’s touch away. Remember that sign that you just whizzed by that piqued your curiosity? Send off an obscure inquiry about it into the bowels of the internet—they’ll take the typos of hasty fingers, too—and they’ll tell you exactly what that sign was about in 0.02 seconds. Hungry? Order your food now and get it delivered by the time you reach your desk. Oh, and did you forget to water your plants? Here’s a little piece of automated code (along with a laundry list of other notifications) reminding you of all these things you still need to do. And hence we’re bombarded with thousands of tiny messages a day, a continuous stream of blips that begin to run together and tell us but one thing: your attention is needed. Right now.

In a world where so many things are so easily accessible, many of us crave to be part of something bigger in the world. We want to think beyond the moment, to consider both the past we came from and the future we’re creating for the generations to come. No wonder we are increasingly looking for tech “detoxes” and escapes from reality. No wonder why we’ve seen a rising popularity in activities that slow us down and make us pass whole afternoons without the thought of how much time flew by. We’re more willing to put time and effort into researching the products and the brands we invest in (yes, invest in, not just purchase). We hunger to find causes to support, ones that we believe in that affect a greater time, place, and community outside of our little social media worlds.

In other words, we’re moving towards an era of intention.

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Of course, it’s a heck of a lot easier to talk about being intentional than to actually be intentional.

I quickly learned that I was no exception to this phenomenon. Not that this came as a surprise, of course. But I could rattle off dozens of instances in the first days of the new year where, living in the moment, I fell back on my old habits and found myself regretting what I’d done. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I went into the year with strategies for overcoming my weaknesses. I tried to avoid the distractions and pitfalls. Neither plan worked. (Guess what? They didn’t work last year, either, and I had all year to try to make amends.)

To be fair, there is no sight clearer than hindsight. Ample reflection reveals an innumerable amount of ways to improve oneself. Who really could have foreseen each of those slip-ups and the degree of remorse they’d perpetrate? I doubt that planning ahead for every little situation would have left me feeling successful today. (I’d probably have been left too exhausted to care.) Yet that little gem of wisdom about hindsight may be the key to being more intentional. Reflection gives us the chance to examine ourselves honestly. What do I see as my weakness? Was it the situation, setting me up for an immediate downfall? Was it the action I unconsciously took in that situation? Was it the follow-through from that action that gave me remorse? Was it the response I got from the people around me? Was it all of these things bundled together? Or… were all of those things, in fact, totally acceptable? What is really making me feel uncomfortable on the inside? More importantly, why am I feeling this way?

Quote: Reflection gives us the chance to examine ourselves honestly.

With all of the immediate feedback we are privy to today, we get a lot of pressure to act in certain ways, or at least to appear in certain ways. Over time, the feelings generated by such actions become hard to ignore. More judgement exists than ever before about self-esteem and self-image. Am I doing something that society has labeled as a common vice, like eating too many carbs? Am I acting in a way that society deems abnormal—am I the only one who isn’t taking yoga classes? Does this make me a less mindful person? Perhaps this majority sense of wrongness is clouding our individual sense of judgement about what feels okay and what feels wrong. But just because the people around us make a set of claims, it doesn’t mean those claims are right. We don’t have to let them shape us: Those ideas floating about on the internet are surface-level in everyone meaning of the word. They are the first to come in contact with outside forces. They change and fall apart with the slightest pressure or probe. They will fall away and disintegrate while other ideas stand strong. Those surface-level ideas are not the material with which to build intentions with.

Instead, we need to examine those claims, understand why they exist, and then figure out for ourselves why we do or don’t agree with their ideas. We must think carefully about how we fit in with that mindset. We need to know the context from which these ideas rose and grasp why those ideas are important to certain people, people who we may or may not end up identifying with. Of course, it takes time to dig into the story. There’s no shortcut to understanding the why, how, and what. It takes a lot of energy to consider how those ideas might apply to our individual circumstances, and it takes even more energy to consider whether those ideas should apply to us at all. But we can’t just let our ideas be influenced by the messages zipping past our eyes, careening wildly from one extreme to the next. In such a situation, we’d be reduced to catching a few words and trying to make sense of what we’d caught—a futile exercise, fully dependent on the voices of others, no matter how many words we’d ensnared. Only by taking the time to build our own individual sets of values will we feel like we have control of our own thoughts and actions. Our own values will be the material that can withstand the forces of distraction.

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Those values won’t happen overnight. Give them time to breathe, wander, and take form. It’s okay to follow impulses every once in a while—some would argue that’s what makes us human—but some ideas just need the space to solidify, just in order to become something worth acting on. Let them move at their individual paces. In the process, don’t be afraid to let ideas meander, go backwards, or jump off topic. Does it matter if an idea ends up being completely different from what it started off as, or if it addresses a value completely different than the one it was originally attached to?

Don’t shun ideas simply because someone else voiced them, either. The reason why intention is such a popular, shared goal today is because other people genuinely also want to be intentional. It’s okay to absorb the ideas of a role model or gain wisdom from an inspiring company. It’s okay to feel comfortable in the presence of the masses. If their ideas align with your set of values, go along for the ride and see what happens. Join a community and support each others’ explorations. Make the journey towards intention easier, not harder. If the match doesn’t work, it’s ok to disembark and try something new. Intention doesn’t mean getting it right the first time.

So this year, I’m going to create spaces for myself to observe and think. I’ll examine myself and my surroundings before judging, responding, or acting. I’ll be more open to trying something new and seeing what comes out of it. And if it doesn’t work out? Well, I won’t be so quick to dismiss a bad result as a weakness in my personality. Throughout it all, I’ll be looking for values to believe in and build upon. I hope that someday I’ll look back and find myself more at peace with who I am and the values I’ve committed to. I hope that the day will come when I can act with confidence and intention, because I took the time today to ground myself.

The distractions will no doubt continue—what would our world be, after all, without some chaos and excitement?—but I’ll find a way to live harmoniously with them, instead of being in service to them.

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