I’m writing from one of my favorite seats in the world — the Amtrak Capitol Corridor in California, heading west. It’s 8:00 am and the sun is rising through the fog over expansive fields of livestock and sleepy train station towns. I’m riding back to Oakland after an overnight visit with an East Coast friend who was in Sacramento for the day on business. This was a spontaneous trip, planned late last week when her meeting was scheduled.
I’m experimenting with being more intentional this year, with my time, my money and my attention, so as the train chugged back to the Bay, I was considering if this trip aligned with that goal. I got to thinking about the difference between spontaneous and impulsive and why one is part of an amazing life while the other prevents it.
Impulsive is compulsive, unconscious, short-term. We’re impulsive when we drink too much or end up on a shopping site from Facebook putting a cell phone ring light in the cart. (Not that either of these has happened to me.) We’re impulsive when we say yes to requests at work without considering how we’ll manage it. Overcommitting socially. Texting that person we have no business texting. Navigating to shopping sites or walking into stores without something specific in mind. Mowing through a family-sized bag of Lays or all of the chocolate in the house in one night. (Again, not about me, like at all.)
Spontaneous is different — dynamic, joyful, with composure. We’re making quick calls from a big picture perspective, not overly fixated on minor details. We’re adding spice to life, keeping it fresh. Meeting a friend for lunch. Striking up a conversation with an appealing stranger. Taking an art class over the weekend. Bringing cupcakes home to a spouse who had a bad day.
But how are they distinct? What can make an impromptu event part of a rich life rather than a destructive detour?
One factor is the state of mind we’re making a decision from. If it’s coming from fear, anxiety or overwhelm, it might be an impulsive attempt to cope with the discomfort of an emotion. It’s FOMO, boredom or the feeling that ‘I just can’t take this’ or my personal favorite: ‘I want it now’. We feel helpless to exercise self-control and lots of justification behaviors come into play.
If, rather, the decision comes from a grounded sense of stability, self-worth or delight, it’s the recognition of an opportunity, or identifying something quickly that will add value to our lives. There’s a mastery of ourselves, of time present in spontaneity that just isn’t there in impulsivity.
Since I quit drinking in November, I have made hundreds, maybe thousands, less impulsive decisions. Sobriety certainly makes it easier to take a moment after an impulse arises to consider whether an action, commitment or purchase is a good move. And being more clear on my priorities makes it easier to determine what a ‘good move’ means. Maybe I’m not having wild nights with Hendricks anymore, but I have almost doubled my net worth. I’ve gained a deeper perspective that helps me value my time in a new way. I more fully enjoy the spontaneous moments because I have multiple types of reserves. I can choose my adventure rather than lunging rabidly at every opportunity that comes into view, desperate for relief at any cost.
I guess I didn’t realize how much I was using impulsivity to distract from my anxiety and unrest. I really wasn’t okay, although I made a good show of it. Between the impulsivity and the raging emotional responses to it, I didn’t have much time to figure out who I was or what I wanted. And honestly, there are so many people in the same boat it feels normal. Deranged, but normal.
Clarity helps me recognize that I need downtime between adventures to process experiences and keep myself sane. That’s one of the things I love about the train. The commute stretches out peacefully, creating a feeling of calm abundance. It puts me into a meditative state with a meandering chunk of time to think. Everything is going to be okay. I’m discovering this sensation in other repeating activities, like cooking and cleaning. I’m noticing that some thoughtful preparation on a friend’s part feels like the most loving gesture.
I’m still navigating the line of impulsive vs. spontaneous. I’m learning to set boundaries when others’ behavior could derail me. As an old pro at impulsivity [brushes shoulder off], I recognize the cues well — last minute planning, getting irritable when someone doesn’t respond right away (or in the “right” way), justifying to ourselves, seeking approval and reassurance from others.
We need a stable foundation to make the occasional spontaneity worthwhile. Nourishing eating habits, consistent sleep, caring for our bodies, regular human connection — a healthy routine that we can stray from without harm maybe 10–20% of the time. This is what a more intentional lifestyle can provide: enough energy, downtime to process our experiences, and a positive mindset to really enjoy the surprises.
It’s been a huge learning curve addressing my own impulsive tendencies, but it’s something I’m getting better at. Every time I catch myself, I build a bit of trust that I am capable of cultivating this worthwhile life. And I get the additional benefits of looking forward to and back on experiences without guilt, shame, anxiety or regret.
As I get more skilled at transforming those impulsive behaviors, I have this sense that so much is possible. Maybe, when we are more consistent with what supports our sanity, spontaneous developments can occur that open up whole new levels.
Will you be ready?