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A Four-Step Path to Deliberate Living

07/14/2014 05:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014
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At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau states that he went into the woods to live deliberately. He wanted to sculpt his life and mind purposefully in a space beyond the influence of his fellow men. People like Thoreau who see themselves as in control of their lives tend to experience greater success in both their careers and their relationships. They also tend to be considerably happier and harbor less regret. We can all take steps to live more deliberately and design our lives in ways that make us feel content and grateful. And these steps don't even have to include giving up your Netflix to become a hermit in the woods.

1. Use a healthy lifestyle to adjust your state of mind

Eating healthfully, getting plenty of exercise, and sleeping enough all contribute to a better mood and increased motivation. Conversely, neglecting your health can contribute to a bad day (or year). When I'm losing focus, feeling down, or getting especially annoyed, my first instinct is to blame something external. How could I possibly be calm while enduring the insufferable sound of my husband clipping his toenails? But if I ask myself whether I've been eating poorly, missing workouts, or staying up too late, the answer is usually "yes." Every bad mood is an opportunity to correct course. Recognize that you are in control and take deliberate steps to realign. Make checking in with your health a regular part of your deliberate thought process. I'm routinely amazed at the number of problems that can be solved with a run, a smoothie or a nap.

2. Selectively scale back

Let go of relationships that are draining you. Stop spending time on activities that don't add value or produce flow. Get rid of possessions you no longer need or use. By selectively scaling back our lives we accomplish two goals: We prioritize and we create space. This space can be room to grow and change, or maybe it's just breathing room. Maybe you're holding onto exhausting friendships, or, like me, have a tendency to unintentionally spend entire evenings staring at your smart phone. Think of something that's wasting space in your life -- an acquaintance full of backhanded compliments, a mauve sweater you've had since high school -- and get rid of it today. Make scaling back a regular part of your deliberate mentality.

3. Seek out new experiences

Part of living deliberately is always continuing to grow and move forward. This doesn't happen if you spend all your time working a dead-end job and doing the same things with the same people every weekend. Growth comes from pursuing new experiences and learning from them. Always have something fresh on the horizon. Take an improv class, go to Burning Man, join a dating site, or bake your own bread. New experiences require planning, but that little bit of deliberate effort is what propels us forward. Do anything you've never done before, and do it often.

4. Write down your goals

An oft-quoted study indicates that 1953 Yale graduates who wrote down their goals were earning 10 times as much as their classmates 10 years after graduation. As it turns out the study never actually occurred. Nonetheless, research suggests that goal setting is motivating and contributes to multiple forms of success. So take some time to visualize what you're trying to accomplish. Create an actual physical or digital record of what you aim to achieve. Your goals don't need to be a life plan. Write down a few intermediate-term objectives with a rough deadline for completion. I keep a note in my phone with 3-5 goals I'm trying to accomplish in the present year. These include personal goals ("Be the best partner and mom that I possibly can") and specific career goals ("Get a job I'm excited to start when I graduate"). Every few weeks, while I'm waiting in line or on the subway, I'll take a look at my list and give myself a quick but critical evaluation. Having the list on hand holds me accountable. It reminds me that I need to actively work toward my goals every day, taking small but deliberate steps.

Living deliberately doesn't require a complete road map for the rest of your life or an extended experiment in off-the-grid living. Rather, living deliberately is about realizing that you always have choices and making active decisions instead of falling victim to habit. If we bring awareness to our days and act with purpose, we can craft lives that leave us satisfied, fulfilled, and content.