Living With Intention

You can redirect the electricity in your brain instead of just letting it flow

Posted Aug 16, 2016

Gautier D'Agoty, Wellcome Collection
Source: Gautier D'Agoty, Wellcome Collection

Intention is the human ability to redirect the electricity in your brain instead of just letting it flow down the path of least resistance. Animals don’t do this. The world reaches their senses and electricity flows into paths paved by past experience. We humans can notice that flow and divert it.

But it’s not easy. It takes so much energy to send electricity down a new path that we can only do it for a smidgeon of information at a time. We must run on automatic for routine tasks just to have the mental energy necessary to act on an intention. You can blaze a new trail in your neurons if you create energy with good self-care, and conserve that energy by avoiding other uses.

Living with intention means choosing where to invest your smidgeon of superpower. If you’re not careful, your mental energy will be frittered away on whatever is loud enough to grab your attention. Or you’ll spend it on other people’s “must do” list. Honoring the intentions of others drains the energy you need to honor your own.

I learned to spend my mental energy intentionally at a very young age. I learned because my mother was emotionally disturbed, and I realized that I would drown if I kept trying to help her swim. So I choose where to focus my attention instead of responding to whatever floated in.

Living with intention can leave you out of step with others. For example, when I got to leave home for college, I was very eager to learn because I did not want to end up back where I came from. I wanted to study in the day when I had the mental energy. At night, I wanted healthy distractions that would not risk sending me back home. Alas, my peers did not see the world this way. They seemed to socialize all day, and to fret about studying at night. I did not want to go with that flow, as much as I wanted to have friends. My mental energy was all I had and I did not want to squander it. So I got a job waitressing at night, and earned so much money that I went abroad each summer. 

You might say this was not living with intention because I was already wired to do my own thing. Indeed, I need to keep carving new trails in my brain instead of just repeating old behaviors. For example, I love to write, but I hate to promote my writing. So after writing a few books, I promised myself that I would stop writing and focus on promoting for a year. Of course, if I cringe when I promote my work, that would not really be a new path, so I set the intention of enjoying these efforts. I used my smidgeon of extra energy to divert electricity from the fear of annoying people to the pleasure of offering people something wonderful. (Pretending you’re offering them a brownie, a therapist told me.) Of course that new thought was just a tiny trickle of electricity because I didn’t have a superhighway to channel it. But I invested the energy necessary to repeat it until the pathway got strong. Then it was time for a new intention. After years goal-setting, I decided to go naked, leaving more space for the unexpected instead of focusing on a goal. When I fear emptiness, I redirect my thoughts to the idea that the future holds good things that I haven’t yet imagined. I am so grateful for my tiny mental bandwidth that I am determined not to waste it!

You can set and honor your mental GPS instead of doing everything on automatic pilot. You can hoard your mental energy budget instead of letting others decide where you should spend it. It makes you human!

Lots more on this in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.

And check out my free Guided Neuroplasticity slide show - it's a simple but complete (and pretty) guide to your brain chemicals and your power over them.