To make the most of your life, to nourish the causes of happiness for yourself and others, it takes strength, clear intentions, and persistent effort. This two-part essay explores how to establish powerful intentions and sustain the commitment to see them come true.
Clarify Your Major Priorities
Your fundamental purposes in life are supported by major priorities, which are fulfilled through specific commitments (see just below). When your purposes, priorities, and commitments all line up together toward positive ends, that creates a virtuous, effective, and happy life.
To clarify your true priorities, write a list of the major areas of your life (e.g. Health, Spirituality, Love, Pleasure, Marriage, Childrearing, Career, Creative Expression, and Finances). Create categories that mean something to you, and you can have as many as you like.
Next, consider how important each area or aim is to you. Bring to mind the view from the porch (see Part One), looking back from old age: What will you want your priorities to have been? Open up to the longings in your heart: What are they saying to you?
Then, make a new list of the major areas or aims of your life, this time in order of greatest priority. Number them, with #1 being the most important. Sorry, no ties are allowed! Ask yourself: If I could have just one of those priorities fulfilled, which would it be? Then take that one off the list, and repeat the question with the remaining priorities, and so on.
When you have your numbered priority list, ask yourself if you are being true to it. Are you allocating resources such as time and attention consistent with your real priorities? Most of us put a lot of effort into things that don’t actually have much pay-off while giving short shrift to things that do. As you reflect, it’s common to feel some discomfort, and if that’s the case, use it to motivate yourself to live truer to your priorities. You’re drawing on cortical capabilities – especially those mediated by the anterior cingulate (ACC) – to resolve conflicts among priorities and get all levels of the neuroaxis pointed in the same direction.
What would a typical day be like if you really lived according to your highest priorities? Whenever you think about living that way, pay attention to the rewards you’d experience and let them sink in, gradually inclining your brain and your mind toward them.
Living in greater alignment with your highest priorities probably means a few small but significant changes. What could you do, realistically, starting today to live more in that way? And how could you start nudging your life so that a year from now, it is as congruent as possible with your most heartfelt priorities?
Make Specific Commitments
Now let’s translate your purposes and priorities into specific commitments. (You could also regard these as agreements with yourself or precepts.) The lower levels of the neuroaxis don’t process abstractions, so giving them concrete instructions mobilizes them most effectively.
Get a piece of paper and put the #1 priority area of your life at the top of it as a heading. Then list specific do’s and don’ts beneath it that will nourish it for real, bringing benefits that are both immediate and which will grow over time. For example, if your top priority is loving relationships, you could consider committing to things like:
- Never speak or act out of anger with my children.
- Say at least one kind thing each day to my partner.
- Don’t let Bob/Mary/whoever get to me.
- Have friends over for dinner once a month.
- Include a compassion practice my daily meditation.
Each of these moves you toward a priority and is a natural expression of that priority; each one is both a means to an end and an end in itself. Start by regarding the do’s and don’ts as tentative, up for consideration (pencil is good for this), but by the end, make a genuine commitment to whatever remains on your list. Then repeat this for each of the other priorities, going through them in order (so the next one is #2). Keep imagining what your life would be like if you actually did what was on your list, focusing on the rewards that would come – happiness, a clear conscience, a peaceful marriage, progress toward important ambitions, spiritual growth – and soaking them in.
Notice any resistance to pinning yourself down. While it’s certainly true that you will pursue your intentions in many ways outside of these commitments, it’s also very useful to tap the executive, conflict-resolving powers of the cortex to direct the bustling brain and thus regulate the unruly mind. Also, to borrow a theme from Buddhism, think of these commitments not as commandments it would be a sin to violate but as “trainings” you undertake to purify your mind and heart. They’re skillful means, not edicts from on high. Take your commitments seriously, but don’t get so worried about breaching them that you don’t make them in the first place. A little wiggle room encourages conscientiousness.
When you’re done, look over your lists. Get a sense of the benefits to you and others of actually living your life this way. Have the experience of those benefits sink in.
Recall the view from the porch, and imagine that you – as that older, future you – are reflecting on what happened in your life when you started living each day according to the lists you just made. Looking backward from that future point in time, imagine how your life changed for the better, including in specific areas, such as your career, family, health, or spirituality.
Then see if you are willing to commit to this plan for your life in a serious, real way.
If not, so be it, but if yes – GREAT!
This is Part Two of a two-part series. Part One – Setting Clear Intentions and Identifying Purpose in Life