The Zen Habits Guide to Spending Your Time Intentionally

By Leo Babauta

Yesterday I was on a call with an active member of my Fearless Training Program, and she asked a question about how to spend her time more intentionally.

Her key insight for me was that a lot of people in the program (and I think many people reading this blog) would like to do the same thing.

How do we spend our days with more intentionality?

How do we stop from just going through it on autopilot, just running to distractions and busywork all the time, just getting through things? How do we keep from feeling overwhelmed and lost at sea? How do we change our habit of being too busy, never having time for the things we want to spend our life on?

The answer isn’t simple, but I’ve created a guide for spending your time intentionally, things that I’ve been implementing in my life.

Let’s walk through this guide step-by-step.

The Mindset of Not Enough Time

Before we get into practical steps, it’s important to address the mindset that many of us have, which just gets in the way:

  • That we don’t have enough time
  • That we’re too busy, or have too much on our plate

These are just stories that we have in our heads, and they’re not really true. We have enough time, and we’re not too busy. We just need to let go of those stories, those complaints about our time, and instead adopt a new mindset.

The mindset is that we have complete ownership over our time. This comes from Gay Hendrick’s book, The Big Leap, where he tells us that we are the creators of our time.

When we complain that we don’t have enough time, we are avoiding taking ownership over an area in our lives. When we say, “I don’t have enough time for this activity,” we are really saying, “I don’t want to do it.”

Instead, we choose to do everything else, and then shirk taking responsibility for that.

What if we could drop our complaints, and take full ownership over our time? That means intentionally deciding how we want to spend the hours we have available.

What if we could be fully present and fully in love with the activities we choose to do? Instead of going through the motions, we show up fully, whole-heartedly?

Ask yourself where you are avoiding taking ownership of your time. Ask yourself how you can take full ownership of that area of your life.

Then ask how you can show up fully, not just doing the activity zombie-like, but with full presence.

Start Your Intentionality with Small Blocks

You’re not going to magically transform into a master of intentionality, spending every second of your day intentionally.

Instead, you’re going to pick a small block of time and practice. Then just two small blocks of time. And so on.

Let’s start with a couple questions:

  • What would be the most important and loving thing you could do with 30 minutes of your time each day?
  • If you could only do one thing today and be satisfied with that, what would it be?

You want to think of the one thing you could do that would change your life in some way: for me, it’s writing this post or creating a new course. For you, it might be meditation or starting that non-profit you’ve been wanting to start. Maybe you want to create videos or start a T-shirt business. Maybe it’s getting your finances in order.

Pick one activity that would make the most difference.

Then set up an intentional block of time at the beginning of each day, and spend it on this one activity. For example, if I want to write every day, I’ll set up a writing block of 30-60 minutes at the start of every day — before email and messaging and checking websites.

It could be a block devoted to starting your business, where you do different activities each day that move you closer to getting launched.

Now here are your intentional guidelines:

  1. Pause and decide beforehand what you’re going to do. Don’t just let yourself drift with the currents of your online world, but at least for these 30 minutes, have an intention.
  2. Know your Why. Why does this matter to you? Are you helping to serve another person, a group, the world? Is this a deeply loving act for yourself or others? Keep this Why in your heart as you move through the activity.
  3. Notice your tendency to rush through. Maybe you just want to get this done. That’s how most of us move through almost everything. That’s like when we sit down to meditate but are just trying to get to the end — an indicator of how we do every activity. What’s the point? This is why we feel so busy — because we’re rushing through everything we do, in a hurry to get to the next thing. Instead, try being fully with the activity.
  4. Try falling in love with the activity. Instead of going through the motions, what if you could be fully in love with this moment, with what’s in front of you, with the activity itself? With the opportunity to serve?
  5. Don’t let yourself be distracted. We have a mental habit of switching to other things, almost immediately after starting something. Instead, be a “Sacred No” to everything else (see next section), and be fully with this activity. Do nothing else.

Learn the Art of the Sacred “No”

One of my teachers taught me the term, “Be a Sacred No.” For me, that means that what we have chosen to do can become sacred, something we’re fully committed to … and then we can be a Sacred “No” to everything else that tries to interfere with that sacred space we’ve created.

Imagine that this 30 minutes you’ve set up for yourself at the beginning of your day is a sacred space — it is so important that you’ve created something very intentional instead of just letting it mix in with everything else you have to do. You carved out the time. You deliberated on your Why, and kept the love of those you serve in your heart.

You are fully devoted to this activity. You are deeply committed, like you’ve never committed to anything else in your life.

And when distractions come up, or someone asks you to have coffee during this time, or there are other demands on your attention … you become a Sacred “No” to all of that. So that you can be a Sacred “Yes” to what you are fully committed to.

Expanding Into an Intentional Day

Once you practice with one sacred block of time that you spend with intentionality … you might want to expand that slowly into the rest of your day. I recommend doing it one sacred block per week (blocks of 30-60 minutes).

Here’s what I suggest:

  • Put your tasks into categories. What are the things you want to spend your time on? For me, that might be creating content, answering messages and emails, doing various admin tasks, doing calls with coaching clients, and meeting or otherwise working with my team. I also have personal things like reading with my kids, meditating, exercising, and doing errands. Group the things you want to do into categories like this.
  • Prioritize the categories. Of your list of categories, which are the most important? Which are less important? This is important if you want to be intentional about your time. You are taking ownership of how you spend your time.
  • Put the most important ones first. If writing is your most important block of time, put that early in the day, before the other stuff. You’re more likely to do it if you put it first. What’s next most important? Put that second.
  • Batch the smaller ones later. If there are less important things that you still need to do during the day, batch them together and put them later in the day. For example, emails and admin tasks — put them all into one block, and have them in the afternoon. You can scan your email quickly earlier in the day, after your most important block, but don’t spend much time on it. This way your smaller tasks get done, but they don’t block your important ones.
  • Spend 5 minutes being intentional about your day. Take just 5 minutes at the beginning of each day to be intentional about how you want to spend your time. How do you want to block out the day? What are you avoiding? What is most important to you today? Can you take ownership and move into each activity with full devotion?
  • Review at the end of each day. Spend a couple minutes before you go to sleep reviewing how you did that day. Were you intentional? Did you take 5 minutes at the beginning of the day? Did you do the important things first? Did you do each activity with full intention, fully present, with the devotion for those you serve in your heart? How could you step up your intention and commitment even more? This is how you continue to move into intentionality over time.

The Joy of Letting Go

At the end of the day, you won’t get everything done on your task list. There will be a feeling of, “I can’t get everything done, I don’t have enough time.”

Actually, again, that’s just a story you tell yourself. In truth, it’s physically impossible to do every possible thing you could do. You only have one body, and so much time. So we have to decide how we spend our time, with intentionality. That’s taking ownership — you decide what to do with the time you’re given. Do you learn to surf or do you write a book? That’s your choice.

And so, accepting that we are choosing how to best spend our time, we can then accept that we have to let go of the rest. We can’t do everything. In fact, if we tried to do everything, we’d do everything poorly. We are owning the fact that we choose to do these things, to be fully there with them, and to do them as best we can, fully and with love.

Then we let go of the rest. We are a Sacred “No” to them, so that we can be a loving yes to what we’ve intentionally decided to spend our lives doing.

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