how to live intentionally in a digital world

How to Practice Intentional Living (in a Digital World)

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I’m a huge believer in the idea of balance. By not letting yourself get carried away by obsession, I believe you’ll live a much more joy-filled life. This concept is definitely true in technology–tech can very easily become all consuming… Social media and smartphones, I’m looking at you! The key to living a balanced tech life, I believe, is intentional living.

But how do you live intentionally in a digital world?

How often have you found yourself staring at your phone instead of interacting with the person right in front of you? Or logged in to Facebook to “just check one thing” and suddenly found yourself having wasted 30 minutes?

Mere distraction or addiction?

We live in the city of Raleigh where my husband is working on his PhD, and from time to time I’ll ride the city bus with our two young children. As I’ve worked to make a habit of focusing on my children rather than my phone when we’re out together, I’ve started noticing just how engrossed everyone is with their technology.

I say this not as a criticism, but as a simple observation. I’ve been there too. I know what it’s like to feel like you’ll miss out. Or to be bored by the world and people around you and just want a simple distraction.

I know what it’s like to feel like you’re becoming addicted—where you think about the next time you’ll be able to get your “fix” and get annoyed with anyone who tries to take your attention away from it.

I know what it’s like to need a balance between technology and life.

Technology is a wonderful thing. It allows us to connect with the people we love. It keeps us up to date with our world. And it puts all the information we could possibly need right at our fingertips.

But when it drowns out our real-life interactions—when we find ourselves longing more for the feel of the smartphone under our fingertips and the words or images on the screen than our loved ones’ voices and faces and bodies beside us, that’s when we know there’s a problem we need to solve.

If we’re not being careful, technology can be addictive. And that’s why we need intentional living.

What is intentional living?

Intentional living means you know what you value. You know your goals for your life, and you make decisions with those goals in mind. The decisions you make support and uphold those goals.

I believe that intentional living in one area of your life means intentionality will spread over into all areas of your life. I just don’t think it’s possible to know your goals for, say, technology, and not have it affect every other area of your life.

The reason for this “intentionality spread,” is that you have to start at your most basic values—the core of who you are—to define your balance in a way that really matters. That core will affect everything.

Ironically, I kind of stumbled into intentional living—there was nothing intentional about it. As a Christian I’ve always believed in the importance of having purpose in life and making choices that matter. But it wasn’t until more recently that I started thinking about intentional living as a general way to live life and not just an application of a few principles.

Having a vision

A few years ago, shortly after my first child was born, I got into online business. (To be fair, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bone, but this was the first time I decided to pursue it wholeheartedly.)

I came across the idea of having a vision to propel you forward in your business. My vision started as sort of surface level. What kind of income did I want? How quickly did I want to be making that income? What kind of things did I want to buy with the money I would make?

I didn’t hit those goals, so I made new ones… and missed those too.

I got discouraged, but then I started to dive deeper. What did I really want in life? What did I believe was most important in life?

Intentional living is not just a one-time thing. It doesn’t mean you have your whole life figured out. It’s a process of growth as you continue to learn more about what you value and what’s important to your interactions with the people you love most. It’s about having a purpose for the things you do.

You’ll be assessing and reassessing as you learn and grow and start to live a life that happens on purpose instead of just sitting back and letting life happen to you.

Is digital minimalism the answer to intentional living in a digital world?

There’s a concept right now that’s just beginning to gain traction. It’s called digital minimalism.

You don’t have to be Amish to be a digital minimalist.

Choose your technology based on its benefit to you and use it in such a way that it doesn’t simultaneously have a detrimental effect. I think we can all put those tenets into practice. For example, maybe you choose to have a Facebook account but delete the Facebook app from your phone to limit the amount of time you spend on the platform.

In that sense, we can all be digital minimalists, no matter how much technology we actually end up using.

However, as you might expect, adopting the idea of digital minimalism seems to lend itself to a fairly spartan use of technology–technically there’s probably some threshold where you can no longer consider yourself a digital minimalist.

I don’t think it’s necessary to adopt a significantly minimalist attitude toward technology (unless you want to, of course). And so I prefer to think of the concept as what I’ve termed “digital intentionalism.”

Let’s look at how you can use the ideas of digital minimalism to benefit your own life no matter how much technology you use.

The following principles come from Cal Newport’s excellent book Digital Minimalism. (I highly recommend giving it a read.) As he details them, the basic principles of digital minimalism are as follows:

Principle #1: Clutter is costly.

Too many distractions, too many apps, too many digital devices can take our attention from what really matters. The small benefits we gain from the apps and devices can outweigh the negative effects on our relationships and our attention to the things that matter.

Related: 4 Unique Ways to Get Rid of Your Old Technology

Principle #2: Optimization is important.

It’s not enough to decide that a particular service or app or device is useful and decide to use it without thinking about how we’re using it. We must also use it in a way that allows us to gain the full benefit while minimizing the negative effects.

Related: How to Clear Up Space in iOS 12 When iPhone Storage is Full

Maybe that means installing a plugin that disables the Facebook news feed, for example, or turning off email notifications and choosing to check email only at specific times during the day.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying.

It doesn’t actually matter which specific decisions you end up making—the act of being intentional brings satisfaction in and of itself.

Digital Intentionalism

We can all choose to cut down on the amount of technology we use so that we can spend more time on what matters. We can all find ways to optimize the technology we do use so that the benefits outweigh the negatives.

You don’t have to be a minimalist to reap the benefits; simply be more intentional about how and why you’re using technology. Start from a place of intentional living, and let the digital pieces fall into place from there.

So how do you start the process of intentional living?

1. Intentional living starts with examining your life.

The self-help experts always say the first step to solving a problem is to recognize we have one, right? So let’s talk about where we may see the problem.

Think about your life right now. Where are you living in a way that makes you unhappy? Self examination can be painful, but identifying what’s wrong is the first step to making it right. Have you been letting life happen to you instead of making choices that bring you joy?

Mallika Chopra (daughter of Deepak Chopra) shared this tool from her book on intentional living over at Mind Body Green. It’s designed to help you assess your life’s balance.

Intentional living starts with assessing your life's balance. Are you suffering, surviving, or thriving?

As you go through this exercise, take a moment to really think on each section so that you are staring the problem straight in the face. Don’t hide from it. But then–this is important–don’t dwell on the problem. Don’t wallow in guilt. Start thinking about the solution.

Many times I’ve gotten into a cycle of “oh, woe is me” when I start analyzing where I am in life. But the goal here is not to pull you deeper into imbalance! It’s to recognize the problem so that you can start to find the solution.

Spirituality & Sense of Purpose

I start with this one because I believe it’s the most important. All of intentional living starts here.

It is your North Star. Are you living in alignment with your most deeply held beliefs? Do you have a sense that your life has meaning?

As a mom and a Christian, one of my deepest purposes is raising godly and kind children. I want to instill in them what we believe and why we believe it. And I pray that they will one day come to believe the same things. Do I fail in this purpose? All. The. Time. Frustratingly so. But this purpose is what I always come back to.

It’s what re-centers me when I’ve been spending more time checking my phone than consciously engaging with my children or meditating on God’s promises. It’s why I work so hard to make it right when I lose my temper with my kids.

A second purpose is helping other moms (you!) live balanced digital lives. But to do that, I need to be “walking the walk.” I can’t help you with something I’m not doing myself.

So I have to ask myself all the time if the way I’m using technology at that moment is in line with the balance I advocate here at Mommy Knows Tech.

How are you doing with your spirituality and sense of purpose? Do you feel like you’re doing something meaningful?

Mental Health

This section is sort of a combination of Chopra’s categories of creativity and intellectual stimulation, plus a little bit about emotional health.

Emotional health

I believe digital intentionalism, as I’ve termed it, is especially important for its effect on your mental health. Studies point to a correlation between social media use and depression. I personally noticed negative effects on my own mental health in the form of postpartum depression and mom guilt after the birth of our first child.

I want to be intentional about how I use technology not only for my own health, but for the influence I have on my children. I’m not the only mom who’s noticed her toddler’s bad attitude when he’s been watching too much YouTube. Teens today are spending less time face to face, and it’s negatively affecting their mental health.

If my children see me constantly immersed in my phone, that’s what they’ll grow up to accept as normal. I believe screen time battles lessen when we’re showing our kids moderation by example.

Related: How to Reduce Screen Time (without Losing Your Sanity)

Practicing intentional living from a digital perspective means being aware of your technology use and being honest about how it affects you. Do you find you’re less patient with your kids when you’ve been spending more time on social media? (I know I do.)

Maybe you get frustrated with your kids because they keep distracting you when you’re trying to escape on your phone. I’ve found myself itching to pick up my phone for no particular reason. It becomes addictive.

Practice intentionally setting your phone down in another room and instead being present with your surroundings. It can be surprising the difference it makes not having it within immediate, easy access!

Intellectual health

I am in the middle of a fascinating book about how computer automation affects human beings. Nicholas Carr in The Glass Cage makes several eye-opening points, but one of the most salient is that automation causes our brains to stagnate and grow dull.

We were not made to just watch the world happen around us as other “beings” (machines) do everything for us. We were made to think, to be active and engaged, but the ideal for modern software development favors making technology as easy to use as possible–so easy that we don’t have to think about what we’re doing.

One example is your phone’s GPS. GPS is an amazing tool, but as we depend more on the technology to help us get around, we lose our own sense of direction and spatial reasoning.

According to Carr, when we practice “wayfaring”–a full comprehension of navigation and our surroundings–we not only build up brain regions associated with location and navigation, we may also increase our brain’s capacity for memory.

He refers to studies by Veronique Bohbot that have shown “that the way people exercise their navigational skills influences the functioning and even the size of the hippocampus–and may provide protection against the deterioration of memory.”

I’ve started to make a point of using my iPhone‘s Maps app the first few times I need to get to a place, all the while consciously taking note of the turns I’m taking. Then, the next time, I leave off the the turn-by-turn navigation and see if I can get there myself.

Yes, sometimes I have to turn it back on because I get lost. But I’ve also been surprised at how much I remember. And I’m building those wayfinding skills.

Creativity

A third aspect of mental health is creativity. Are you spending time creating or are you just consuming? Technology and the internet make it so easy to just consume information and entertainment all day long. But I believe we were made in the image of a creative God–I believe we were created to be creative ourselves.

When we’re not using our creative energies we grow dull and something inside us dies. Creativity can mean something different for each person. Maybe you enjoy writing–try spending some time journaling. Maybe you enjoy music; you might want to learn to play an instrument.

Aloneness can also spark creativity. When we have the time to be “bored,” we begin to create to fill in the empty space. This is a great article about how our modern, connected world can effectively eliminate our alone time, and as a result, our creativity.

Physical Health

Are you happy with your physical health? I know it’s hard to keep up with things like exercise and diet when you’re spending your time chasing children and trying to get them to eat.

Before having kids I use to run regularly and be a lot more careful about my diet. Now I’m lucky if I get to run to the mailbox, and food is often what’s easiest and fastest. So I understand. I know it’s a challenge.

But our physical state has a huge impact on life as a whole, so here are some things we can both watch out for and shoot for in our quest for intentional living.

Practice intentional movement

Be intentional about getting off the couch. Yeah, I get it. At naptime I like to crash on the couch and just scroll Facebook. But even something as simple as getting up to clean the kitchen or jump for a few minutes on the trampoline means I’m getting off my butt and getting in some physical activity.

Play outside with your kids. Bonus: not only will you be spending time with them and getting physical activity yourself, but they will also be getting exercise and sunlight. Sasha at Life’s Carousel has a fun list of outdoor water games to play with kids.

Get enough sleep

Try putting your screens away an hour before bed. (Um, yeah, that one is hard!) Don’t sleep with your phone next to your bed where you’ll be tempted to check it instead of sleeping. Try diffusing lavender or cedarwood at bedtime to help your body relax and get ready for sleep.

Invest in your health

One of my favorite ways to support my body and all its systems is with high quality supplements and essential oils. (By the way, oils are great for emotional and mental health too.)

Or maybe you need to finally get to a doctor for a health issue you’ve been facing. Figure out what it is you need to get your health on track, and make the investment.

Try a diet reset

If you’re having a hard time being intentional about your eating choices, a diet reset can be helpful.

At the beginning of this year–after the overeating and extra relaxation of the holidays, I was feeling bloated and just gross. (And I had some extra baby weight that was hanging on after baby #2’s arrival…)

We did the Whole30 for the month of January and it was fantastic. It was challenging, and a little more expensive than I would have liked, but so worth it. I felt amazing and lost quite a bit of weight.

Now if I could just figure out how to do it all the time! But it definitely had an effect on the recipes I use, and I think overall we’re eating healthier.

Relationships

Are your relationships in balance? Do you feel like the time you’re spending with people is time well spent? Are you intentional about the time you spend together or are you just existing?

Your kids

It’s so easy to get caught up in what we want to do rather than spend time with our kids. I get it. Just today I got sucked in by my computer when my son asked me to play with him, and by the time I was ready to pay attention to him, he was asking to go outside to play with the neighborhood kids.

I missed that opportunity to connect with him because I was too busy thinking about myself.

But my husband always says that kids are the only thing we create that are eternal. Their lives matter, and the time we spend with them counts for eternity. So think about the time you’re spending with them. Are you being intentional with your time together?

I love this list of indoor activities to do with your kids from Anna at Abrazo and Coze. There are over 52 of them–at least one for every week of the year! I think a great intentional-living goal would be to make this list into a checklist and choose one activity every week to build your relationship with your children.

Your significant other

I hear moms in my Facebook moms groups all the time lamenting their husbands’ loss of interest in sex. I don’t know about their specific relationships–some of it may be related to hormone balance issues–but there’s also mounting evidence that technology is at least partially to blame for the overall decline in sex.

Checking phones overnight, constant daily distraction (did I just get a new notification? I wonder what it could be!), and anxiety set our bodies up to think we’re in constant danger. And when you’re in danger, guess what your body decides it doesn’t need?

Admit it–you had no idea intentional living could lead to more sex, did you?

Finances & Career

Are you happy with your financial state? With your career? Maybe it’s time for a change. Do you need to make a better budget (or just make a budget)? Maybe you need to find ways to save money, such as finding a cheap cellphone plan. Or maybe you want to finally start pursuing your own business–may I suggest blogging?

You can also help protect your family’s financial resources by setting secure passwords and using two-factor authentication on your online accounts to keep out hackers.

Even social media may contribute to poor finances.

Finances and work can cause a lot of stress in our lives if the balance isn’t right.

2. Decide what’s important to you and your definition of intentional living.

After you’ve assessed where you currently are with your life balance, you’ll want to start thinking about what intentional living looks like to you. What are the values you want to live your life by?

Determining your values can take a couple of different routes. You can start with thinking about what’s physically important to you–when I began my journey to entrepreneurship, I started with the surface things I wanted.

Or you can start with your core beliefs and values. What is it you believe that makes you tick? Or what is your vision for your best life? Grab a piece of paper and start to envision the life you want.

This needs to be based on your desires, by the way. It can’t be what you think you’re supposed to want or what other people want for you. It has to be your core or it won’t work.

For me, from the physical perspective, what I want is a farmhouse in the country, preferably in Maine where I grew up. I want lots of land so that my kids can explore the outdoors. And I want to be freer with our food budget so that we can buy better quality meats and organic produce.

Would you like to live by the ocean or in the mountains? Or do you want to pay off your mortgage or be able to afford a new home? Write that down.

Now what values lead you to those physical desires?

How to define your values

A few months ago, I did an exercise to define my core values. You can download a list of values compiled by Brene Brown here.

Brendon Burchard in High Performance Habits recommends thinking about how you want to describe yourself in the future. What values does that future self hold to?

Start out by looking at the list of values and writing down any that you feel apply to you and your future self. Then start crossing off the ones that are encompassed by others. For example, maybe a strong value for you is “family,” but it’s encompassed by “joy” because you strive to interact with your family from a place of joy.

You want to continue to whittle the list down until you’re left with just two or three core values that define the way you’ll choose to live your life and interact with the people around you. Every time you make a choice, you’ll ask yourself, “Does this decision support my core values?”

Purpose to live by those values now, not in the future. Not when you have more time.

NOW.

Living by them now is how you will become that vision of your future self.

My values

If you’re wondering, my values are

  • joy
  • curiosity
  • integrity

Joy. I choose joy because I want to enjoy life to the fullest. I want my interactions with the people I love to be defined by the joy of being together. When I share what I’ve learned it’s with the hope that it helps you enjoy life more.

Curiosity. Because I love to learn, and it’s that curiosity that drives me to dig deeper, to learn more, to find out why things are so. Because I want you to experience the excitement and joy of learning too.

Integrity. Because the things I say and do mean nothing if I can’t be trusted. Because it matters to me that truth governs everything about me, to the very core of who I am. Integrity that drives my curiosity to find out the TRUTH of the way things are.

Each of these values feeds into the others and encompasses any other values I hold. (For example, family is a huge value for me, but it’s encompassed by the joy, curiosity, and integrity that govern how I want to define my interactions with my family.)

I’d love to hear what your words are! Feel free to leave me a comment letting me know.

3. Intentional living means remembering your values and assessing often.

It doesn’t do any good to define what’s important to you if you don’t take steps to remind yourself of what you’ve decided. We are forgetful creatures and easily distracted.

Once I defined my values, I took a suggestion from Brendon Burchard in his book High Performance Habits. I created alarms in my phone with the values as the label. Three times a day my phone reminds me to check in and ask if I’m living my life by those values.

Too often, I have to answer, “No. The way I responded to my son earlier does not reflect my desire to embrace joy.” But that’s why living with intention is a journey. Realizing I’ve fallen short is an opportunity to realign my focus and ask for God’s help to live according to the values I hold most dear.

I also start each day by asking myself, “Who do I want to be today? How do I want to interact with others? What skills must I develop? How can I make a difference and serve with excellence?” (These questions also come from High Performance Habits.)

Take the time to live intentionally every single day.

4. The key to joy-filled intentional living: own what makes you unique.

Your values may not look like someone else’s, and that’s OK. Especially today when it’s so easy for certain opinions to become louder than others in places like social media, we can sometimes think that if we disagree or hold different values that there’s something wrong with us.

I’ve been there. I’ve questioned myself and what I believe. And I’ve wondered if I was the one who was wrong for not thinking the same way as everyone else. I’ve changed course because of someone else’s opinion.

But there is no satisfaction in doing something just because it’s the way everyone else is doing it. Yes, there’s value in considering other perspectives. Yes, we learn and grow from other people. But ultimately the decisions you make have to resonate with what you believe at your core.

If you encounter opposition to your values, don’t be afraid to reject ideas that run counter to the values you’ve established for your life.

How can technology support you in your journey to intentional living?

I don’t want this post to read like an argument against technology. Because it’s not that. There are many way that technology can help us to live more intentionally.

  • Set phone alarms to remind you of your values.
  • Listen to motivational audiobooks.
  • Download a Bible app.
  • Use the internet to find resources or interact in support groups for dealing with mental health issues.
  • Try a blog or YouTube as an outlet for your creativity.
  • Fitness apps, workout videos on YouTube, and fitness gadgets can help you keep up with your physical health–I love my fitbit!
  • Social media, texting, and video chat can help keep you connected with the people you love most.
  • Use a OneNote bullet journal or to-do list to stay organized and productive.

This is why I believe intentional living in a digital world is about balance–it starts with recognizing where technology may be keeping you from what you truly value. Then, once you know what values you want to live your life by, make a point of using technology in a way that it only supports your values.

Conclusion

Remember that intentional living is not a one-and-done thing. It’s a journey that involves assessing where your life is and what may need to change, deciding what you value, and living daily in alignment with those values. Reassess as needed as you continue to learn and grow.

Be intentional about every area of your life–including the way you use your technology–and I believe your life will change for the better.

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Living intentionally, mindfully, and authentically in a digital world doesn't have to be difficult. Make better decisions by recognizing the problems and defining the values you want to live your life by. Find personal growth and alignment in digital minimalism or digital intentionalism.

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