A Mindful Life

When I first started The Simple Dollar, a little over five years ago, I had just started the process of turning around my finances and I wanted to share that story with my friends.

Before that, I hadn’t really been mindful about my financial choices. I would spend with reckless abandon, fulfilling the things I wanted in the very short term without really reflecting on what it meant not only for the long term, but in terms of other short term desires.

Simply put, I didn’t really think about what I was doing with my money. Sure, I would plan ahead enough to make sure that the next month’s bills were paid, but I wasn’t even all that good at doing that. I spent money without thinking. I was mindless.

That mindlessness ran over into a lot of other aspects of my life. It affected how I spent my time. It affected how I acted toward others. It affected how I handled my career. It affected my physical fitness. It affected my relationship with my wife. It affected my hobbies and interests.

In each case, I would make most of my choices without really thinking about them. I’d say things based on my immediate emotional or intellectual response. I’d spend time on what seemed fun at that exact moment. I avoided doing things that weren’t fun, no matter how much they would pay off for me down the road. I never considered the things I was doing in a scope that was beyond me (and sometimes Sarah, too) and I rarely considered them beyond the next few weeks.

Most of the time, I simply acted on impulse in everything that I did.

Thankfully, I was raised well enough that my impulsive responses weren’t terrible. My parents ground a basic level of politeness into my head, for starters, and I had a decent general sense of what it took to survive from day to day and week to week.

The problem is that acting constantly based on such impulses built very little for the future.

It left my finances in a shambles. It left me losing touch with the career I’d dreamed of since I was a boy (writing). It left me completely unprepared for parenthood. It left me with a life that didn’t really seem to have any long-term values.

The biggest change that I’ve made in my life over the last several years is to simply start thinking about all of the little actions I take.

By that, I don’t mean that I stand there and puzzle over what kind of gum to buy in the checkout line. Instead, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about what caused me to make decisions in the heat of the moment and I try to make sure that those decisions are the best possible ones. Not just for the short term, but for the long term. Not just for my immediate convenience, but for a better overall life. Not for my immediate emotional gratification, but for building relationships over the long haul.

Today, I actually spend a lot of time reflecting on why I make the choices that I do and how I can correct the unconscious rules that guide my impulses. I’ve learned a few things.

If I think about something for a while, I’ll find that I remember those thoughts the next time the situation comes up. For example, if I’ve realized that I’ve been spending too much time lately playing a particular game, the next time I pull up that game, that conscious thought actually pops into my head. It makes me stop for a second, reconsider playing that game, and usually causes me to simply not play it.

If I repeat a new behavior a few times, it eventually becomes natural and I don’t have to think about it. Virtually every time I change one of my routine behaviors in my life, the first several times I’m faced with that choice again, I have to think about it. If I repeat that choice enough times, though, and always make the “better” choice, I start making the “better” choice by default.

This is surprisingly true for almost every aspect of my life. It affects how I spend. It affects the things that I choose to say, how I choose to say them, and when I keep my mouth shut. It affects how I spend my time.

Amazingly, it even affects my enjoyment levels of most things. If I’ve given a particular choice enough thought and convinced myself that one choice truly is better, I immediately feel better when making that choice. The other day, someone commented that I seemed to deeply be enjoying the spinach salad that I had chosen to eat. I realized that I was enjoying it quite a lot, and some of that enjoyment came from simply knowing I’d made a good, health-conscious choice about what to eat.

The key to all of it is to simply spend some time reflecting on the choices you make.

How do you do that? For me, I usually do it in the evenings during the time I write in my journal. I’ve been keeping an (almost) daily journal since 1992. Until the last few years, it had mostly just been a chronicle of my day and whatever thoughts were going on through my head.

Lately, though, I find myself thinking a lot about the choices I made during the day. My entry might briefly touch on the things I did that day, but most of the entry will involve me re-thinking how I handled a discipline situation with my children. I’ll even find myself doing some research because of this where I learn how I could have handled it better.

I’ll go over all kinds of choices during this process. Sometimes, I’ll look at what I ate at a particular meal. I might re-think a conversation I had with Sarah. I might look at a spending decision I made that day. I’ll potentially review something I’ve written that day. I’ll reflect on a particular relationship in my life and what I can do to make it (and all other relationships) better.

My goal is simple. I want every seemingly automatic decision I make during my busy day to be the right decision for building a great life. Finances and spending choices are certainly a part of that, but so is my health, my family, my spirituality, my knowledge of the world, my friendships, my hobbies, my work, and all of the other things that make up my life.

If I could change anything about my life as I’ve lived it thus far, I wish I would have adopted this perspective much sooner. It’s something that I hope to embed in my children as they grow, too.

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27 thoughts on “A Mindful Life

  1. krantcents says:

    I am a planner by nature and I am always mindful of my decisions. They are pretty much automatic or on auto pilot because I am very experienced and old(er).

  2. Jen says:

    Simply put, virtually speaking, this is an absolutely, incredibly insightful post which really makes me fully consider the necessary and ongoing changes I can make to my life to live a more mindful and obviously much improved life!!! Thanks Trent!!!

  3. Steven says:

    @Jen: I believe you meant “consider fully.”

    I, too, find the overuse of certain words and phrases distracting. I’ve tried asking Trent if he intentionally uses them as a way of “branding” his site. Of course, the comment ended up being stuck in moderation, and he never did respond. Certain writers have certain catchphrases, and I think Trent might just be trying to establish his own.

  4. jackie.n says:

    this week, i was actually simply deeply moved this week.

  5. Jen says:

    Maybe writing using an abundance of unnecessary adverbs and adjectives is a way of branding his site…I, ultimately, simply never considered this viable option. That being said, simply put, keep up the absolutely interesting and simply put outstanding writing…that’s what keeps me continuously returning to this amazingly effective site. Thanks Trent!!!!

  6. Vanessa says:

    The repetition of topics bugs me more than the repetition of words.

  7. cindy says:

    Ditto what everybody said.

  8. Troy says:

    This massive realization that is so profound it had to be shared…

    It’s called growing up. People have been doing it for centuries.

    What ever did we do before “blogging”

  9. Jen says:

    Well said Troy…simply put, people need to grow up and get older at the same time while still progressing in a uniquely straightforward path to maturity. Thanks Trent AND Troy!!!

  10. Jen says:

    PS..JK Troy…you are right…Trent grew up and as my husband said, “he doesn’t spend like a dumb a– anymore.” Much Love, Jen

  11. Jules says:

    LOL, once again the comments prove to be more insightful than the post.

  12. Angie says:

    Trent doesn’t read the comments. You have to email him if you want to communicate with him. I’m guessing that if you’re respectful, he will most likely reply. I’ve gotten a reply every time I’ve emailed.

    What I really don’t understand is why a lot of you come to this site if you’re bugged by it so much.

  13. Tracy says:

    @Angie

    Many of us come for the comments – the posts themselves are sort of the price I have to pay to get to the actually informative or entertaining part.

    Although repetitive posts like this are even worse because really, what can people say they haven’t said before?

  14. valleycat1 says:

    What keeps going through my mind is “Mr. Grasshopper, meet Mr. Ant.”

    And I’ve sent a couple of emails to Trent and never had any acknowledged or replied to. If he gets the volume he claims & enjoys great on-line convos, you’d think he’d at least have an auto reply.

  15. Vanessa says:

    Ditto @ #13Tracy

    It’s all about the comments.

  16. Riki says:

    The thing that rubs me the wrong way about these posts is that Trent seems to make every. single. thing. into a very profound moment or decision.

  17. valleycat1 says:

    Tracy – if you don’t like the comments, just read the posts (if you subscribe via e-reader, you can’t even access the comments).

  18. Tracy says:

    Why are you trying to torture me, valleycat1! I like the comments, NOT the posts!

  19. Angie says:

    Maybe #17 was meant for me? And for the record, I do like both the comments and the posts (for the most part). I find that sometimes the best info comes from the continuing conversation in the comments. But sometimes it just seems like bullying. I mean, one time Steven jumped on the grammatical error/spelling crusade against Trent, so since his site was linked to his name I went and checked it out. What I found were spelling and grammatical errors in the first 2 of 3 articles I read. I promptly emailed him, and he replied kindly, but it just goes to show that we all make mistakes. I see incorrect grammar in the comments all the freaking time, and the only reason I don’t point it out is because, like I said, some of you just seem like plain bullies.

  20. Riki says:

    Most of the people who comment don’t claim to be professional writers the way Trent does. He also goes on and on about how he actively tries to improve his writing.

    Besides, I absolutely think a blog writer should be held to a much higher standard than any of the commenters.

  21. Steven says:

    We’re Trent’s customers, whether we pay for the content or not. He makes his living because we read his posts. This relationship leads me to the opinion that he should treat the work he presents here with the same level of care, thought, and professionalism as he would were he submitting an article to the New York Times. It’s a matter of integrity. Were he a columnist for a newspaper, surely the editor of that paper would provide him with feedback so as to improve his writing technique. In a sense, we’re all his editor (as well as his customer.)

    Personally, I’ve moved on from nitpicking his spelling errors. If Trent doesn’t feel it’s worth his time to spellcheck his work (which can be done with the click of an icon on the WordPress platform, or as he recommended a few days ago, with an online spellcheck) then it’s not worth my effort to tell him to use these tools. I do feel, however, that it’s worth my time to suggest ways of improving the style of his writing by not being so repetive in the words or phrases he uses to make his points. Also, the overuse of adjectives detracts from the overall message he’s attempting to present. I have my doubts that Trent speaks in the same manner as he writes, so why write in a way that’s unnatural? Blogs are all about conveying a natural, conversational voice. Or, at least that’s how I’ve interpretted them to be.

    I hope that clarifies my position, and I’m sure others would agree, and even more have their own reasons for being “critical” of Trent. In my opinion, from an improvement standpoint, the people who “criticize” Trent are his most valuable tool as we’re the people who can help him improve. Coddling him and saying “Great article,” do little for his growth as a writer.

  22. Johanna says:

    @Jen: Heavy use of boldface would make your comments so much more insightful.

  23. Jen says:

    @Johanna…boo-ya:)

  24. jackie.n says:

    @#21 steve
    excellent post. very well written.

    i have also made comments in the past that are similiar in content. mainly that this is not a blog, it’s his business and career (a fact that trent reminds all of us on a weekly basis). i agree he should take note of his reader’s input to improve his writing. perhaps someone is correct in that his obsessive use of the word “simply” is done deliberately to generate more hits. i am sure his wife, a teacher of children, reads his site daily. i am sure friends and family read his site frequently. i think i would have to give my “blog” friend a gentle heads up if i knew he didn’t usually read the comments. i don’t know–if i was a person like trent who carried a notebook at all times to jot ideas down, i would certainly check my comments section as possible resource material.

  25. Vanessa says:

    I’m wouldn’t assume he wife reads this site daily. She’s got a full-time job, three small kids, and who know what other responsibilities as well. This blog is probably the last thing on her mind, which I wouldn’t blame her for.

  26. Bill says:

    Trent has mentioned along time ago how any negative comment hurt his wife and they agreed she would not read them. Which seems perfectly reasonable, I would have a hard time being impartial if random readers where criticizing my mate.

  27. jackie.n says:

    why is my comment above still in moderation!!!!???

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