12/02/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

Life and Other Habits: 4 Simple Steps to a More Conscious, Grateful Way of Life

You are halfway to your office, totally relieved at how little traffic there is, until... BAM, you realize it's Saturday morning and you don't have to go in today!

Have you ever rushed to the school and turn into the drive-way leaving skid marks, only to wait and wait and wait? You sit in your car, waiting with mounting anxiety for your child to appear, and just before panic sets in, you remember, today is your neighbor's turn to pick up the kids? WTH? How do these things happen? Keep reading.

But first a few more questions. What did you have for breakfast this morning or dinner last night? What color are your cat's eyes? What were the last words you said to your spouse or child when you left home today? Do the answers roll off your tongue? No?

If you had to pause and really try to remember, you are not alone. Actually, you are in the company of the majority of people whose lives have become little more than habits or a series of unintentional activities.

You may ask, "What difference does not remembering what I had for breakfast make in my life?" Consider this example**: If you were to eat just one meal each day and that takes 15 minutes daily, if you live to be 75 years old, those 15 minutes add up to 285 days or nine and a half months just for this one activity! Do the math and it is easy to imagine that even a few unintentional activities easily add up to years out of our lives. Few of us would make a conscious decision to waste an entire a year's worth of living, yet we do it all the time.

Our everyday experiences make all the difference, because our lives are not a "big bang" experience, but a series of many ordinary experiences and activities. Even the big-bang experiences, things we easily recall: receiving our master's degree; passing the bar; our wedding; the birth of a child; buying our first new car; all are sets of experiences which we compile and commit to a specific memory. Research suggests that some experiences are more memorable than others because of their connection to one or more strong emotions. These emotions are most activated when we fully and consciously experience an event or activity; we are "in the moment."

Some experiences are so powerful that we can do little other than be in the moment, but for most of us the number of less compelling, every day experiences far exceeds the "big bangs." So do we just have to accept that we will live a major portion of our lives more happenstance than as a conscious experience? No!

The work of psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, suggests that we can choose to live more consciously at any moment. We can choose to be fully present so that even the most mundane experiences become richer, more real, more memorable and meaningful, when we live consciously.

Here are four steps to create a more conscious way of experiencing life:

1. Make the decision to live more consciously. Make a mental note that you choose to live in the moment, fully aware of all that is happening in and around you. Write down your intention to live more consciously. Read it aloud. Listen to your voice.

2. Commit to doing everything with the intention to live in the moment, fully observing and experiencing all that you do and encounter, for at least 21 days. Research tells us it takes a minimum of 21 days to break an old behavior pattern and an average of 66 days to establish a new one, so when you think you've got it, add at least seven days more to anchor your new habits.
Here are examples to illustrate what do everything with intention means:

Change in some way, big or small, habits that you recognize in your day.

Brush your teeth with intention. How does the toothpaste taste? How does the brush feel on your tongue? Listen to the sounds around you.

Do you park in the same spot although none is assigned? For at least the next 21 days don't park in the same spot two days in a row. Find a new spot each day. Park forward. Park backward. Park on a different floor.

Open and close doors with intention. How does the knob feel in your hand? Does the door open inward or outward?

3. Create new awareness habits and apply them throughout your life. For example, commit to greeting your partner with a new welcome each day. Be aware of the words you choose. How do you feel saying them? What is your intention in speaking those words?

4. Practice gratitude and be grateful for everything. Again, take this literally. Make an effort to find the point of gratitude for all that you have and in every experience. If you're thinking, there are situations in which there is no point of gratitude, allow me to share a short story. Shortly after my father was killed in a boating accident, I was talking with a friend and sharing with her that apart from the tragedy, I felt incredibly grateful for the circumstances in which he had died. My friend stared at me in disbelief and horror. She even seemed angry and blurted out "Oh, bull****! A terrible thing has happened and you don't have to pretend it's okay!"

I wasn't pretending, nor was I denying that something terribly sad had happened and it certainly wasn't okay, but I was truly grateful. I was grateful that my father's last day was spent on his boat, fishing and doing what he loved to do. I was grateful that he hadn't died in a hospital intensive care unit, bald, bloated and defeated after struggling with cancer and suffering terribly. This was how my mother had died ten years earlier. Even in the midst of great sadness, hurt and loss, I could be grateful for that. More than that, my experience compelled me to be grateful and then somehow it became ok. There really is a point of gratitude in everything, even though sometimes we have to search hard to find it.

So here is the recap on four simple steps to create a richer, more conscious way of life:

Decide to live more consciously, then do it meticulously for 21 days* and keep going.
Commit to doing everything with intention, then adhere to this meticulously for 21 days and keep going.
Create new awareness raising habits, then do it meticulously for 21 days and keep going.
Practice gratitude and be grateful for everything for 21 days and keep going.

Living should be more than a habit. Do it more consciously; it just might gain another year of life back!** And remember to celebrate yourself and your renewed commitment to life in some small way, each time you reach another 21-day milestone.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you! Post your comments below.


* Recent research indicates that habits may broken in as little as 21 consecutive days of exposure to a specific activity or action, however the average time to install new habits is approximately 66 days with individual results requiring up to 284 days.

**This statement is based on the mathematical example given in the body of the article and does not represent in any way a medical claim to enhance or extend life.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.