June 25

Be Intentional: How to Avoid Being Like a Tumbleweed in the Wind

Ever have the hollow feeling of getting to bedtime and not having much to show for your day? We all go through times when it’s easy to get lost in the rigmarole of life. One day turns into another and another and another, and before you know it, you hit another milestone birthday and wonder where the time went! If we don’t figure out how to be intentional in our lives, it’s easy to get caught in an endless cycle of “same old, same old.” Which, in turn, could lead to regret. Avoidable regret.

how long should a vacation be?

PC: New York Times, July 21, 1910

The picture above is a headline from a 1910 NY Times article. If you can look past the gender bias and the general political incorrectness of the headline (such were the times), the article makes for an interesting read.

Then US President, William Taft, suggested that everyone be allowed at least three months of vacation to recover from the “exhausting of capital of one’s health and constitution.” The break, he suggested, should be long enough to “expand the lungs and get exercise in the open.”

The newspaper article was a response piece—a compilation of a series of interviews and comments from high-ranking folks—to President Taft’s suggested vacation duration.

Needless to say, even back then, people scoffed at the idea of taking three months off. Here’s a quote from a banker who was interviewed for the story.

“I cannot see how any man, young or old, should spend a quarter of the year loafing.”

Vacations and wellbeing

Whether taking an extended vacation break is loafing or not is subjective. It depends on each individual and their unique circumstances. But the reality is, in most cases, any discussion about a vacation’s duration can be moot if we don’t know how to be intentional with our time.

The mundane feeling — that our days, months, and years are simply slipping away — can cause us much angst. Simply scurrying away to Tahiti for a few days isn’t going to solve the problem, either. Though, I admit, it sounds lovely.

In a study published in 2012, researchers analyzed the impact of longer (an average of 23 days) vacations on the health and wellbeing of a group of employees. They found that health and wellbeing peaked on the eighth day of vacation, quickly returning to baseline level as soon as the employees resumed work.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who has resumed work after a vacation. The researchers are simply validating the feeling most of us have on the first Monday afternoon when we’re back at work after a long vacation— “I’m so ready for the next vacation” or “It feels like I never left.”

The reason is quite plain and simple. We are too busy looking ahead instead of being in the present.

Regardless of whether you take two-week vacations, or like President Taft had suggested, three-month sabbaticals, unless you learn to be intentional about how you live life, happiness will be elusive.

Living intentionally

We either live with intention or exist by default

Kristin Armstrong, US Bicycling 3-time Olympic Gold medalist

We can keep climbing the hedonic treadmill until we die, but there are no guarantees of happiness in that process. Ultimately, whether we admit it or not, we are happiest when we work towards a purpose and find fulfillment in the little things. It’s that feeling of accomplishment in our lives, of having done something meaningful with our time, that moves the happiness needle.

So, how do we stop leading our lives on autopilot?

Like the beginning of any good yoga class, the pursuit of happiness requires us first to set the right intention.

What is intentionality?

To be intentional means approaching an activity or task with a clearly defined purpose on what you’d like to achieve or experience. It means you have a strong mental image of what you’re trying to accomplish in a set amount of time.

Most of our activities throughout the day tend to, unfortunately, be unintentional.

  • Playing with our kids while also answering text messages on the phone.
  • Watching the video length timer bar on our online study material every minute, constantly checking how much longer the lesson is going to take
  • Sitting through a meditation session while mentally checking things off our to-do lists (Guilty!)
  • Thinking about chores at home while at work and vice-versa

These are distracting behaviors, sure, but they are sloppy or half-assed because they lack intention in the first place. In most cases, we simply look to check the box to say we did something rather than spend the time doing it well.

And our excuse, typically for such behavior, is our lack of time. We tell ourselves we have too much to do AND too little time to do it all. Unfortunately, that’s not true. As I had alluded to in a previous post, when we conflate busyness with purpose, we simply end up like tumbleweeds blowing through the wind.

It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?

Henry David Thoreau

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s almost impossible to be intentional about each and everything we do during the day. We will have to let our inner autopilot take over sometimes. That said, we can at least get started on intentionally getting through a few essential tasks daily.

How To Be Intentional

Intentionality is a three-piece puzzle—all three components below need to come together to have an impact.

a. Purpose - Define what it is you want to do

b. Visualization – Construct a powerful mental image of the result

c. Action – Do it

Let's unpack each of these in a little more detail.


Here’s a question for you:

What activity could you do that would make you feel accomplished at the end of the day?

Or (if you’re someone who fears the stick rather than values the carrot), what would you like to do today that would prevent you from beating yourself up at bedtime?

For me, a day is well-spent if I get through my list of what I define as non-negotiable tasks. These are tasks that make me feel fulfilled. It took me a while to define this list, but my life is immeasurably better for it. If you’re curious about the process, I wrote a whole series of productivity-related posts to create efficient and effective To-do lists.

Items on my list include meditation, writing a gratitude journal, exercising, spending time learning something new, family time, etc.

Your list does not need to be long. You can even start with just one or two items. But take your time to define activities that have meaning for you. It is hard to be intentional about something you don’t believe in.


Develop a very clear mental image of what the process would look like. Visualization makes the brain move the concept from the abstract into the realm of possibility.

Fans of Seinfeld may recall the “Mental alarm clock” episode. Kramer insists he doesn’t need a physical alarm to wake him up because he can simply tell his brain what time he needs to be up the next day.

There is some truth to this statement. Studies such as this one have shown substantial, positive, proven scientific benefits to mental imagery.

For instance, if my goal is to run, I mentally map how far I want to run, what pace I’d like to run at, my running route, whether I need to carry some water with me on the run, etc.

In other words, to be intentional means taking time to plan the specifics. When I let my brain know I’m serious about the task and am not planning to get out of the door and simply meander. (Of course, that happens too. More often than I’d like to admit.)


The hard part—performing the task. With intention.

Here are a few things to remember:

Start small

If you want to build a business or learn to play an instrument, it will take some time. Dedicate yourself to spending a small part of your day, about 30-45 minutes taking baby steps. Don’t try to conquer ten “purposeful” tasks in one day. Focus on one or two at a time. Preferably one. Then build upon it slowly.

Protect your time

Block your calendar. Make your task non-negotiable. Don’t let anyone else lay claim to this time. Guard it like an important career-altering meeting.

Don’t Multitask

Multitasking will not work when you’re trying to develop a new skill. Your brain needs to fire on all cylinders on the task in front of you. Avoid distractions. Turn the phone off. Your only job is to pay attention.

Deliberate practice

We all have Malcolm Gladwell to thank for the mainstream adoption of the phrase “deliberate practice.” Read my previous post here for what deliberate practice is and isn’t.

To be intentional does not mean you work on a task until you run out the clock. It means deliberately working through those somewhat challenging obstacles you encounter along the way.

Remember the musical chairs game

If you really want to add purpose to a life consumed by busyness, you need to let something go. Your day is like a game of musical chairs in which the number of people exceeds the number of available chairs. There always are more tasks (people) than available time (chairs.) It's important to let go of the superfluous things you spend your time on.

Does this letting go mean your Netflix binge-watch is in jeopardy? Maybe.

And while on this subject, I will say this too. Even if you are pursuing an activity purely for leisure, it can still be done with intention. I have written not one but a two-part post on intentional timewasting here.

Intention is not rigidity

Being intentional does not mean you need to sacrifice spontaneity in life. You can absolutely pick up the shiny object or stop to smell the roses with one caveat. Be intentional. Direct your attention to the rose.

Renowned author Michael Pollan once said,

When chopping onions, just chop onions.

This is how you find your Zen. Yes, even in drudgery.


Time is precious. Even if you feel compelled to waste it, do so wisely. With intention.

The most precious, non-renewable resource we have is Time. Yet, by forgetting to be intentional, we squander time away from doing things that bring us no joy.

Learning to be intentional requires us to be mindful and focused. That can come only with consistent effort. And through the practice of mindfulness meditation.

In return, we are guaranteed outsized rewards in the form of lasting peace and contentment. How can anyone say no to such an incredible proposition?

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river of joy within you 




{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Get a FREE detailed step by step guide to build a practical to-do list to achieve all your life goals. 
You'll also get weekly actionable tips based on science for a healthy, productive and happy life!