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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