I’ve noticed a set of habits that’s led me to increasingly interesting places in my life. It amounts to something of a practical breakdown of what it means to me to follow my intuition.
I’ve listed it as six independent steps, which I find helpful for thinking about the general process, but they are rarely isolated events, never finished, and don’t always happen in this order.
1) Recognize what’s not important.
This is usually the hardest step for me.
A lot of the things I do I’ve inherited from others: family, friends, society, etc. Mimicry is how we all started learning and it remains a useful strategy in our toolkit as adults. It saves a lot of time and energy to copy others, but it also means I get trapped in things that were important to someone else but aren’t important to me. Watching the evening news, drinking soda and standing in line at nightclubs are all things I used to do before I realized they had no significance to me.
Also, things are always changing—what’s important to me yesterday might not be important today.
Filtering out what’s no longer important to me requires constant attention—it’s a job I’ll never finish. It’s hard work and often painful to decide what we no longer need, which is probably why storing our stuff is such big business—many of us would rather give money to strangers every month so as to delay or entirely avoid doing it at all.1
One of the best ways I’ve found for recognizing the unimportant is to remind myself what is important by asking does this bring me joy? If the answer is no, then no matter how much I want to believe otherwise, it’s just not that important.
This is the same question used by Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo. Marie believes we should intentionally surround ourselves with only those things that spark joy in our lives. It’s easier said than done, as anyone who has been inspired by her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has no doubt discovered for themselves. But returning to this question has helped me be more honest with myself about what’s not important.
Seeing what’s no longer important is easily sabotaged by fear. It’s easy to fool myself into believing something is important when really I’m just scared what it might mean if it’s not. For me, it’s important I have a safe space where it’s OK for me to explore the truth without judgement or worry about the repercussions. One such space for me is my meditation practice. Another way I create this space is by going on retreat.
Knowing that something is no longer significant, even if there’s nothing I can do about it in the moment, helps me to consciously—and unconsciously—steer my life in more interesting directions.
It’s often said that understanding the problem is half the solution. Usually, I think it’s much more.
2) Remove what’s not important.
The art of removing things is the art of learning what’s worth keeping.
It’s scary to let go of things, habits and relationships that don’t seem important anymore. What if I’m wrong?
Time and time again I’ve learned I’m incredibly lousy at calculating the true value of things until they’re gone. Losing something only to realize after the fact it was important is incredibly painful. Experiments in loss aversion theory suggest that losses might be twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.2 But these experiences are also incredibly enlightening. They show me—experientially not theoretically—what I truly value. One of the major lessons from my first year of solo travel was just how precious my family I left back home really was to me.
Everything has a cost, but the cost of everything is not always obvious. It’s not the things I lose but the things I keep that cost me the most. I often don’t know how an unhealthy relationship, job or belief is holding me back until I’ve let it go and it’s impossible to know what opportunities I might have missed as a result.
These type of mistakes are much worse because they go unseen while the harm they cause continues to invisibly accrue and compound.
There’s another reason it’s frightening to let go of things. What if I’m right? More on that in step four.
I find it easiest to start small and build some momentum before tackling the more difficult, risky stuff. All the big decisions in my life—including my decision to live outside of the U.S. indefinitely—began as a string of much smaller decisions. As I learned to trust my judgement and trust the world to continue to provide, I gradually developed the courage to reform larger areas of my life. As I did, the results became more profound, which infused new vitality into my efforts.
Start by organizing your sock drawer and before you know it you might find you are clearing out the garage.
3) Know what you value.
My values show me which direction to go when I don’t know the way. They ground me and orient me. What’s important might change but my values rarely do. They are the bedrock I build my life upon.
Considering what is no longer important often gives clues as to where my values lie. For example having a car used to be really important but now that I don’t live in the U.S. it’s not—my car has been sitting, neglected, in my parent’s garage. It’s the freedom to go where I want that I value—not the car. Understanding that this is a core value for me has influenced where and how I live as well as myriads of smaller decisions like what I bring with me when I travel.
Knowing my values helps me keep sight of what’s truly important when my situation inevitably changes.
I find it insightful to continually reflect on what my life is already saying. Like in my finances, what I’ve spent my energy on in the past is a good indicator of where my priorities actually were—as opposed to where I want them to be.
4) Be open.
This is a very active step. It takes courage to remain open and ready, like a good dance partner, to the improvisations of the world. Or, if you prefer a less poetic metaphor, to throw shit against the wall and see what sticks.
Letting go of the old creates emptiness which can lead to a feeling of meaninglessness. To the extent I’ve identified with whatever I’m leaving behind, it means being a little less sure of who I am. I never know for sure what will take its place. Being with doubt, insecurity and uncertainty are not my strong points. It’s required a lot of practice to not immediately fill holes in my life with whatever is close by, to keep room for surprise.
The idea to travel the world only sprouted in my mind after I’d pruned a wilting romantic relationship and uprooted an all-consuming business partnership. It was only after I left the U.S. that my two newest passions, writing and trekking, began to grow.
As I suspend my ever-present urge to Make Things Happen and learn to let things happen to me, life feels more and more as if it’s unfolding in front of me, like a magical carpet beneath my feet, leading me to wonderful places I never imagined.
5) Follow the flutter.3
This is the fun part. Everything else is in preparation for this.
When something is new, it’s often too early for me to really know how significant it will be. This is where I hear people using phrases like “follow your heart” or “trust your gut”—but what does that really mean?
In finding the things in life that make us happy, organizing superstar Marie Kondo uses the Japanese phrase tokimeku, which translates roughly to “spark joy,” but more directly it translates as “flutter, throb, palpitate.”
For me it’s a feeling, not a thought. Sometimes it’s a sense of expansiveness in my chest, other times it’s a sudden spark in my mind or a rush through my body. It’s faint and usually comes as a whisper—which I find all the more reason to remove anything that might distract me from hearing its call. At different times it has felt to me like curiosity, excitement, meaning, or joy.
My job is to move toward that feeling. That’s it.
6) Rinse and Repeat.
The remarkable thing about this process is how it feeds itself. The more new ideas, experiences and relationships I encounter, the better I become at discerning and discarding what’s not important. As I begin to understand what I truly value, being open to the world feels less threatening and more exciting. As I open up wider, there’s more opportunity for meaningful experiences to touch me. As my life blossoms I become more confident in setting my own direction, which inevitably leads me toward new, and more interesting places and relationships.
I don’t think there is such a thing as doing it wrong, only doing it better. Every step we consciously make—even those in the wrong direction—helps illuminate the way. Every moment brings with it new opportunities for us to awaken.
It’s the process of finding myself in the world around me, each flutter of the heart another breadcrumb left by my soul, leading me back home.
Exploring where that path leads, I suspect, is my life’s work.
*Featured photo taken along the ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi, India.
- In the U.S. alone, there are 48,500 self storage facilities offering 7.3 sq. ft. of self storage “for every man, woman and child in the nation.” https://www.storageworld.ie/worldwide-self-storage-industry-fact-sheet/
- If I had to guess, this is probably a big reason why reframing the question from what’s not important? to is this bringing me joy? is so helpful. The first question frames it in terms of what is being lost. The second frames it in terms of what is gained. Removing things that don’t bring me joy will help me be surrounded only by things that do, hence bringing me more joy.
- Similar versions of this message include Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” and Derek Siver’s “hell yea or no.”