Purpose comes in all sizes.  There is the small, momentary purpose which we encounter throughout the day, like when you open the closet door to find a shirt to wear as you get ready to go to work.  Or when you stop at the supermarket to buy the necessary ingredients for making lasagna.

On the other end of the spectrum, are the larger purposes in life:

  • to have a loving, fulfilling marriage with your partner;
  • To provide your children with a good education;
  • To live in a way that minimizes the harm that you cause to people, animals and the planet.

Sometimes a purpose is large enough and prominent enough to withstand the passage of time.  We may think of such a purpose as a mission  — a driving force in our life – something about which we are passionate.

There are two critical problems we may run into when it comes to purpose.  The first occurs when we sacrifice our purpose to our feeling states.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be guided by our purposes (large and small), we “go with our feelings.”   Though we plan to get up early on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and take a 45 minute walk, we may be swayed from that plan by feeling tired.  Or by the great comfort we feel beneath our cozy covers.  So we turn off the alarm and drift back into sleep while our sneakers wait patiently at the door wondering what happened to us.

Will your life fall apart if you go with your feelings and go back to sleep just one time?  Of course not.  But if this becomes (or is) your dominant style, you may leave your purpose behind in exchange for easy and comfortable feelings in the moment.   This might translate into neglecting your tax returns, eating too much sugar, having roller coaster relationships, or losing credibility at work.

So the fundamental change we need is a shift from a feeling-centered approach to decisions to a purpose-centered approach. The question isn’t “what do I feel like doing?” but, rather, “what needs to be done?” All the time management systems in the world won’t really help us very much until we’ve developed the capacity to make decisions based on purpose rather than feelings.

The way to overcome this obstacle is by developing a skill called, “coexisting with unpleasant feelings.”  This is the approach suggested by Morita Therapy, a method of Japanese Psychology sometimes called “The Psychology of Action.” We learn to coexist with our feelings while taking action.  We do what we need to do and take our feelings along for the ride.  We become less feeling-centered and more purpose-centered.

The second problem that we can run into is not being clear on our priorities.  Since our purposes compete with one another for a place on the stage of our life, we need to know what is most important to us.  If we’re not sure, we may gravitate toward what is handy, easy or convenient, rather than what is important.

Imagine that all of your purposes were piled up in various rooms throughout your home.  One day you wake up and find that your house is on fire.  All you can do is grab a few things and run out the door.  What purposes would you grab?   If you know what matters most to you, the decision would be easy.

Taking action based on clear priorities is not always easy, but can lead to a more rewarding experience in life.  It requires conscious effort and ongoing practice, but can result in more joy, less suffering and a legacy of accomplishments that we believe really matter.

Gregg Krech is the author of 5 books about Japanese Psychology, including The Art of Taking Action, an Amazon best-seller.  He will be teaching the course TAKING ACTION:  Finishing the Unfinished and Starting the Unstarted, which begins on Feb. 19, 2024.  

Photo credit to Stuck in Customs

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  1. kenny 11 years ago

    Thanks yet again Gregg….just what I needed. Even though I have read all the books in the solar system on living a life of purpose, my days were beginning to slip through my hands like water and I was wondering who is in control of how I spend my time.

    This world generally says go with your feelings, but deep down I know purpose is where its at. But then I start to doubt my purpose which can just be a feeling based temptation of the mind to prevaricate and get distracted. What am I trying to say?…..clarity of purpose is critical to me (which ones would I grab if the house was burning really helps) and I think Ghandi said action is therapy – how true – as long as its action in line with purpose, might be the footnote.

  2. Aimee 11 years ago

    Well, this is exactly how what I’ve been suffering from lately – SOS – this week especially! You nailed it – running down the checklist, thinking about the next thing while still working on the first thing, multi-tasking, feeling like there is not enough time in the day to get done all that I am supposed to get done.

    I really appreciate what you’ve pointed out with regard to focusing on “outcome” more than the actual experience of doing a thing. I’ve been working on this a bit and today I was able to be really present with one of the more time consuming tasks…which went a long way in helping me not to spend time stressing about the conversation I knew I had to have later on this afternoon.

    I’m beginning to see how these things fit and work together: purpose, action, attention, co-existing with unpleasant feelings, doing what needs to be done…the question of which purposes you would save from a house fire is a darn good one that will require some thought. 😉 Thanks for sharing this post with us!

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