Open Mind, Narrow Focus: Learning to Prioritize with Joy

In the past year, one concept that’s really latched onto me is the importance of prioritizing. We all know that life often feels crazy, beyond our control, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And it’s so hard to choose those few things we want to focus on in our limited time.

Alex and I got married when we were still in college, so maybe the realization that I had to prioritize my time hit me extra early. I had to choose from the get go that when it came down to it, my relationship and time with him was more important than all the intricacies of a college education.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I totally slacked at my work, or that I considered my personal development not important. If anything, this new arrangement gave me more responsibility for my own priorities. I’m someone who has the tendency to throw aside my own agenda for others, especially people I love or respect. While I truly believe there’s a time and place for that, I came to a sobering realization:  I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

For me, as a newlywed college student, that meant two discernible things: first, that I could not let the expectations put on me as a student by teachers or coursework dictate the time and attention I spent on my husband; and second, I could not let my desire to be a good partner to my husband detract from the work I had as a student.

This may sound contradictory. How can partner and personal growth both be the most important thing at the same time? I spent the rest of my college career trying to figure out that balance, and I went on to grad school trying to learn the same thing, and every job I’ve had and will have is a challenge in trying to figure it out.

Because for me, prioritizing boils down to the daily questions of: What things are most important to me? and When must I say no to one important thing so I can say yes to another? 

This week, my best friend Jenny and I were chatting about this concept. We noticed how many of the people we meet seem perpetually rushed, with absolutely no time to spare. We noticed how it’s so easy to say, “I don’t have time to work out,” or “I don’t have time for self-care,” or “I wish I could do xyz, but I just can’t.”

Jenny has a full time job, a lengthy commute, various activities that all take time, and her husband has a demanding and time-consuming job as well. But the truth, she said, is that we all do have the time for whatever we want to do. We just don’t always use the resources we have wisely. As she put it, “The way you spend your time shows what your priorities are.” In other words, what we do with our time reflects the things we most value.

In pondering this, I had another thought: what if the priorities that people commonly feel that they should have, say working out or social time or whatever it is, aren’t actually priorities they want to have? But instead of admitting, “hey, that’s not something I value or even want, and I choose to spend my time elsewhere,” we frame ourselves as victims. “I don’t want to” becomes “I would if I could, but I can’t,” and that makes us feel better, more justified, in not doing what we feel pressured to do. But that also ends up making us feel more strained, more stressed, less free to spend our time as we like. And we feel constantly defeated, because we don’t meet those lofty goals we feel we should.

One thing I found helpful in this process of refocusing my priorities was to look big-picture. In my life, what are a handful of things I want to be true? A handful of goals I want to accomplish? For me, it narrowed down to three things: I want to have a good relationship with God (and by extension, everyone else); I want to be physically healthy; and I want to publish a book.

With these big picture ideals in mind, I try to do something every day that cultivates those things. I spend time in prayer or devotional reading. I work out or do yoga. I read and write. Suddenly my days are very simplified; I don’t have to worry that I didn’t do enough or that I’m not succeeding enough. As long as I hit the three big priorities on my list, everything else is a bonus. And suddenly, life feels a lot more victorious, a lot more joyful.

On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy. For example, being physically healthy is one of my life goals, but it’s not a life goal that’s always joyful to pursue. I have to set aside time to work out, I have to endure the moments of pain that come with working out, and I have to be mindful about not stuffing my face with cake at every whim.

What keeps me motivated is realizing that this goal is mine, and no one else’s. I am doing this because I want to, even if in the moment I don’t really “want” to. It also encourages me to make my goals on my own terms. For me, this means I don’t run super fast or participate in insane cardio or go to hot yoga classes, because honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t completely abstain from carbs or sugar or dairy, because I don’t want to. My goal is not to win a bikini contest; my goal is to create sustainable, mindful health. I challenge myself according to my own ability and lifestyle, not someone else’s. As a result, I feel good not only physically, but mentally.

Despite the best of intentions, prioritizing is still a struggle, especially in a society that is perennially rushed and always comparing one person with another. But I keep coming back to that conviction I first put together in college: I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

I don’t have to be a victim to other people’s values. I don’t have to be a victim to society’s values. If each of us took back those reins a little bit, if we chose our priorities with mindfulness, I wonder how much society, big bad wolf that it is, might change little by little. I wonder if eventually, we might become more peaceful, more joyful, as a whole.

And it’s not something we can achieve with a snap. It’s a daily practice, one that will change with each season of life. I am still learning the balance between being married and following my personal callings, and I’m realizing its a daily mindfulness more than a one-and-done decision. But it’s a mindfulness we can each practice in little ways, little baby steps.

At first it might seem really hard, and it is! For the first time we’re going against the current; there’s bound to be some resistance. Ultimately, though, I am convinced that setting priorities leads to a more joyful heart, open mind, and narrow focus. It leads to more intentionally enjoying life, not just for our own sake, but so we can take the newfound peace we have and pour into others.

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