Intentionality

I absolutely love hot sauce.

I put hot sauce on everything. If it’s savory and I have some hot sauce around, I’ll put hot sauce on it. Pizza. Burritos. Scrambled eggs. Grilled vegetables. Beans and rice. All of it gets hot sauce.

Even dishes where you wouldn’t expect hot sauce are dishes where you’ll often find me doling out the hot sauce. I have a savory oatmeal recipe that I often make for myself in the mornings that I consistently add hot sauce to (it’s not sweet at all – much different than the pre-sweetened oatmeal packets from the store).

There are many times where my love for hot sauce has become so routine and automatic that I just put hot sauce directly on things without even really thinking about it. That can backfire if someone has already put some in the dish before serving it, which makes the dish extremely spicy. Sometimes, it can result in me not really appreciating the dish itself because I just drown it in hot sauce without even really considering the food itself.

In those moments, I’m operating pretty much on autopilot. If I see a savory dish, I reach for the hot sauce almost without thinking about it.

Sometimes, however, I’ll find myself at a restaurant where there’s no hot sauce available, or I’ll find myself at the dinner table and we’re out of hot sauce.

It’s in those moments that I eat a meal without it being slathered in hot sauce… and, usually, I end up discovering that I quite like the flavor of something when it’s not bathed in hot sauce.

In recent months, I’ve even chosen not to put hot sauce on a lot of meals that I once smothered with the stuff.

It turned out that somewhere along the line, my use of hot sauce had gone from an active decision to something I did on pure autopilot.

Of course, it’s not just hot sauce. There are many, many, many things that I do – and that we all do – that were once decisions that were taken so regularly that they gradually moved to a state of “autopilot.” It’s no longer really a decision – rather, it’s just something you do in a given situation without thinking.

I see a savory meal in front of me. I drown it in hot sauce. There wasn’t even really a decision making process there.

Autopilot mode has its advantages. It basically subtracts an active decision away from our busy lives so that we don’t run into decision fatigue too quickly, theoretically saving our actual decisions for something more important.

The problem is that autopilot mode can easily run amok, as with my hot sauce usage. You start relying on it for things like buying a coffee on your way to work or going out to eat instead of making food at home and before long, it’s adding up to a pretty hefty expense. It’s taking away from other things you might enjoy. It’s putting pressure on your financial life.

And, yet, autopilot kind of blinds you from the consequences. You’re doing something automatically that’s worked for a long time, so it seems like this thing should be “safe.” The troubles must be coming from elsewhere. You don’t even put that “autopilot” decision on the table when looking at things to change.

That’s where intentionality steps in.

Intentionality is the power of the mind to direct itself toward that which it finds meaningful and take action toward that end. It’s essentially the opposite of autopilot. It’s all about having a clear purpose for every action that you take, one that you can clearly explain.

Do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing? That’s the question that intentionality is always asking you.

I find that taking an intentional approach to the things I’m doing – really focusing on what I’m doing with each step and why and only doing it if it’s sensible and justified – melts away a lot of spending and helps me discover new things in life.

Being intentional let me really enjoy the flavor of several dishes that I hadn’t really considered in years, just by backing off the automatic hot sauce.

Being intentional causes me to order less food when I go out to eat, choosing a small portion rather than a regular one, which is less expensive and healthier for me (and less likely to waste food).

Being intentional means that I don’t go to the coffee shop or stop by any coffee kiosks that often, because I think about whether I really want that coffee and it’s usually the most fleeting of desires. I’m better off money-wise and health-wise to just keep going.

Being intentional isn’t really that difficult. It just means really thinking about everything you’re doing and taking your time with it. Stop and ask yourself why you’re doing this, or why you’re doing that. Is it a really good reason? Or is it just something you’re doing on autopilot?

I find that being intentional with my actions usually leads to me “undoing” some of my worst autopilot decisions. If I’m being carefully intentional about what I’m doing and I bump up on an autopilot decision that really isn’t a good choice, I’ll not only make a different choice in that moment, but I’ve usually smashed down that autopilot decision (or taken a big step toward doing so).

The thing is, once I intentionally knock down an “autopilot” decision a few times, it ceases to be an autopilot decision. It moves back into a conscious decision, and if I’ve already recognized it’s a bad one, I’m often choosing “no.” Often, it begins to fade completely into the background of an option I don’t even consider, like when you’re walking by a bunch of stores on the way to your destination and you don’t actually even consider going into them.

Simply being very intentional about your actions is a powerful personal finance strategy, but it’s difficult to do constantly, if for nothing else the decision fatigue factor. Making decisions is like a muscle – you can make it stronger through certain practices, but it still gets tired and needs rest, and it’s through being automatic about a lot of our decisions that we have the mental energy to make good decisions sometimes.

So, what can we do about this? How can we use intentionality to break down some of our worst automatic decisions to live a financially, physically, and emotionally healthier life? Here are some things that I personally do.

Be intentional at certain moments. Try to be intentional at the grocery store, for example. Think carefully about every decision you make when you’re there rather than just throwing the old familiar items into the cart. Be intentional when you’re going out to eat so that you choose a healthy meal that’s appropriate for your hunger level and don’t spend money on relatively thoughtless decisions. Make a point to be careful and intentional at those moments when you might be spending money, and then let it rest afterwards.

Be intentional about everything for short periods of time. I often practice this for short periods in everyday life, just to get used to it. I’ll just be very intentional with my choices for, say, 15 minutes. I’ll try to think carefully and live in the moment with literally everything I do for 15 minutes.

Practice good “mental hygiene.” This is kind of a catch-all term I’ve started to use for things like getting a good night of sleep, writing in my journal, meditating, and trying to get in a flow state when working. Doing those things tends to decrease my overall decision fatigue, making it easier to be intentional about the things you’re doing.

Autopilot decisions are incredibly helpful in getting us through everyday life, but it can lead us into routines that actually work against what we want most out of life. Being intentional about our choices, even over short periods, can reveal poor autopilot decisions and give us an opportunity to fix them.

Good luck!

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