When things start spinning out of control, we respond by moving faster. We stop prioritizing, put our heads down, and work intensely at whatever task is in front of us, exhausting ourselves in the process.
Instead, pause and breathe. And then think.
Does this task really need to get done? What happens if I don’t do it?
The answer to those questions is sometimes obvious. But surprisingly often, we don’t know because we haven’t thought much about whether the tasks on our to-do lists reflect our larger goals and values. We may not even be sure what our goals and values are.
Taking charge of our lives requires articulating what really matters to us and then thinking about the relationship between that and our daily activities. Otherwise, we won’t be able to distinguish between the important and the trivial, and we won’t know where to focus.
When we feel busy and overwhelmed, the last thing we want to do is to reflect on goals and values. It is tempting to skip it and to keep running, checking off the next five items on the to-do list instead. Don’t give in to that temptation. If you’re lost in the woods, walking faster will only get you more lost. You need to stop and find your bearings:
What matters to you? What are your central goals and values?
There are big choices to make here because most of us seem to have enough goals for several lifetimes. You’ll need to choose and prioritize because you don’t have infinite powers or time. In the perfect world, you may be able to excel in your career, in sports, and still have deep and meaningful friendships. In the real world, you’ll likely have to make some choices: What is most important to you? Writing things down helps here. For example, here are my own top goals:
· Staying healthy in both body and mind: Exercise regularly in a mix of ways that I enjoy, remembering that the goal is physical and mental health rather than performance; I eat healthy foods most of the time; take time off from work at night and over the weekend to rest and recharge.
· Building and maintaining strong relationships with my friends and family: Spending time with close friends, calling friends who live far away every month or so, regularly reach out to friends who I know are having a hard time, and not avoiding difficult conversations when needed.
The next step is to compare what matters to you with what you do on a day-to-day basis:
· Do you spend too much time and effort on less important stuff? Most of us do. Watching TV is on few people’s list of important activities, but the average American watches 5 hours a day.
· Do you spend enough time and effort on important stuff? If family is your priority, are you spending enough time with them? If not, how can you change that?
· Are there better ways of pursuing a goal? Staying healthy requires exercise but we don’t all have to run marathons. We don’t even have to run; we can walk or swim instead. Friendship is important, but we don’t all have to excel at purchasing thoughtful gifts. If shopping isn’t your thing, find other ways to nurture friendships. Be creative.
Here too, I recommend writing down your answers. Writing is a great way to help us stay focused and to think through tricky issues.
Thinking about your overall life in this way can feel overwhelming if you are not happy with what you find. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Pick one or two specific issues that seem especially urgent and start with them. And remember to notice the areas where you’re doing OK too.
Pause and check back in regularly (maybe once a month) because it is easy to drift back into bad habits, going on autopilot, and focusing too much on busy work:
1. Bring to mind your goals and values.
2. How well do your day-to-day activities reflect your goals and values?
3. What one or two things do you want to change?
It is your life. Let it be more about what matters to you.
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