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.

Too Fine a Point

I always assumed I hated real pencils.

I remember long days in high school, spending all this time trying to sharpen my pencils into a fine point, hearing the shh shh shh of the pencil sharpener shaving away thin layers of wood and graphite. Then finally, the perfect point. Then pressing against it to test its strength, and snap. Broken. Or even worse, broken deep in the pencil shaft, gouging out a piece of wood with it. Ribbons of shavings stuffed into the pencil sharpener, the quickly dulling blade, fine flakes of graphite staining my hands gray, pencils growing shorter and shorter until they were the same length as my fingers.

I quickly switched to mechanical pencils. Finally, a point that was always sharp, and all you had to do was click click. I scavenged the best mechanical pencils I could find; I hoarded them. My favorite was the Mother of All Mechanical Pencils, with a retractable eraser you could screw up and down like lipstick.

Jenny, my best friend, has always loved real pencils. When she told me about her affection, I sighed in longing. I wished I could love pencils as she did. But all the promises they made of simplicity, practicality, and a certain quotidian charm, had proven empty to me.

But then Jenny got me a collection of lovely floral pencils from the Target dollar section. And you can’t not love something your best friend gets you from the Target dollar section. The pencils came pre-sharpened, which was a boon. I used them, and fell in love with them, and when the points finally dulled so much that they were useless even for underlining in books, the thought of going back to mechanicals was one I couldn’t bear. I had grown to love the feel of solid wood and graphite in my hand, and the flimsy plastic of a mechanical pencil can’t compare to it.

So, committed to the idea of loving these pencils, I bought a pencil sharpener for them. I figured, if it’s a new pencil sharpener, perhaps it won’t be like before. I had great optimism and began sharpening. But soon the old pattern emerged. Shh shh shh. Shh shh shh. Wiggle wiggle. Snap. Damn.

Once again, I had pencils as long as my fingers. But at least they were floral. At least they looked pretty in the pencil cup on my desk. We moved house, and I took the useless pencils in their pretty pencil cup with my desk and set them up in a new space. Every so often I looked at them ruefully.

Finally, one day I couldn’t take it any longer. I went searching through the new house, which we share with other people with belongings unbeknownst to me, for a forgotten and unused pencil sharpener that might magically help my ailing floral pencils. I found one, teal blue and gray. It was stuffed with ribbons of wood shavings, the blades caked with graphite. I took it apart and scraped off years of pencil sharpenings with a letter opener. I put it back together again.

I also found a single pencil with a tiny gaping hole where the lead should be. The sight was one I had obviously seen before. It sent shivers down my spine. But the pencil itself, I realized, was a Dixon Ticonderoga #2. And in case you didn’t know, Dixon Ticonderoga #2s are the best pencils forged by human hands. I was first introduced to them back in grade school when I took a standardized test at the public school. No homeschool or Christian school, which were the scope of my educational experience, ever had the resources to invest in Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. Only a public school, with government funding, could ever afford such a luxury.

But now I had one, in my hands, free for the taking, along with a teal and gray pencil sharpener. I sharpened the Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and the shavings slid off the pencil like slices of butter. The perfect point.

I took my loot to my desk and sharpened my floral pencils. One by one, the perfect point.

Now I have four pencils in use, and I occasionally line them up to behold their beauty. They have bewitched me, body and soul.

I realize this might all sound rather over the top. I realize not everyone is as excited with the nuances of office supplies as me. But my pencil issues taught me something, as office supplies can do. Things aren’t always as perfect as we’d like, be they people, situations, or pencil points. But that doesn’t mean the thing itself is wrong; sometimes it merely takes time, practice, and a new mindset to sharpen those things into what we’re searching after. The important thing, I’ve found, is to not give up.

Get you a best friend who loves pencils. Get you a new sharpener. Enjoy and adapt to every stage. Keep searching. Keep sharpening.

 

Being Still

Lately I’ve had the sense that I’m supposed to be more still. There are several things in my life I’m trying to get started, to make happen, to hustle into being, and time and time again it seems the answer that comes back to me is this: Wait.

And I didn’t think this would be such a problem for me. I’m Miss Introvert Homebody (that’s Mrs. Introvert Homebody to you). Being still is my jam. Nothing makes me happier than knitting and watching Netflix (the above photo is Exhibit A). When my best friend and I plan a wild Friday night, it usually includes staying home and dancing like old ladies to rap and injuring a ligament and retiring before midnight. It’s a good system.

But apparently, I’m not as good at being still as I thought. while I crave a life of stillness, I often loathe myself for being still. It feels too lazy to be peaceful, to wait. It feels like a waste. And so when I sense stillness being imposed upon me, I get belligerent. “Do you have any idea how wasteful this is?” I grumble. Instead of enjoying the rest in waiting, I do busywork to feel more accomplished. Instead of having hope that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, I drown myself in guilt for not doing more.

And so I run around in circles, doing more, trying more, and when all I try to do falls through and the message comes back, louder, JUST WAIT! I get more frustrated and more exhausted, until I don’t have energy to even do what one is supposed to do when waiting: being faithful in the little things. I’ve bought into the culture-wide lie that the little things aren’t good enough, that if I want to be successful, I must hustle! werk it! believe it dream it do it! So let me work on all that while I’m waiting!

And still the answer comes back: Wait. Busywork does not count.

And there’s really nothing to say but, “Okay.”

So I’ve been trying to focus more on the little things, the daily tasks in front of me. And oddly enough, I see some of what I’ve strived so hard to hustle into being come together on its own, just a little bit. Almost as if it’s not really up to me at all.

Almost as if all I need to do, is wait.

 

 

 

How to Build a World

I’ll be honest.

I’m staring at the screen right now, and I’m supposed to crank out something for what is to me tomorrow morning, and I don’t know what to write. I usually come up with an idea for my blog posts a few days in advance, and then all I have to do the night before is polish what I’ve built so it’s smooth and pretty. But this time I feel tired, and I don’t really want to string together some cohesive thoughts, and the thought of taking “just a little break” from blogging this time around sounds so good.

But I’m showing up anyway, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about writing, it’s that you have to keep showing up. All the training and reading and technique and talent in the world isn’t worth a thing if you don’t show up, if you don’t write little by little day by day.

And most, if not all, writers have this problem. Writing is our passion; it both gives us life and makes sense of life. We can’t live without writing, but we also don’t want to do it. We come up with clever excuses and side hustles and procrastinations.

Writing is the most self-sabotaging of all professions.

This week I finished a short story I’ve been working on. I’ve been submitting to a few contests, and the deadlines have been invaluable in making me work. Unfortunately, my next submission deadline isn’t until the end of the month, and so of course I’ve been dragging my feet on this blasted story.

So my best friend and I came up with a plan. She lives several hours away during the summer, which really sucks in many ways, but primarily because it cuts down on our mutual creative socializing and forces us to act like well-adjusted adults for the benefit of the masses. But I digress.

When we’re together, we camp our books and computers in some hip coffee shop and spend time drinking coffee and writing (as any self-respecting millennial writer does). When we’re not together, we end up mismatched, one of us drinking coffee when the other isn’t, one of us not writing when the other is. There is imbalance and disharmony. It is very bad. It does not do.

So one day we planned an impromptu, virtual coffee run. We each camped our books and computers at home, got coffee (at least, I had coffee. If she didn’t, I don’t know what the point of all this was), and challenged each other to write 1,000 words on our individual projects (that was the point).

I knew I could finish my story in a little over 1,000 words, so I set off eagerly. And it was grueling. I spent most of the time staring at the screen while my phone lit up with her texts signposting her progress, and I told myself “It’s fine, this is all fine, it’s not a contest, stop getting mad, you can write, you’re smart, you know words, THINK, DAMMIT!”

So relaxing.

But in the end, I finished my story in just shy of 1,500 words. And she finished a chapter of her book and started another in a little over 2,000. We both showed up. And our relationship is still intact, too. I don’t tell her how competitive I can be. She still thinks I’m nice and don’t care about it. Boy, do I have her fooled.

Sometimes just showing up is all you need, no matter what you’re doing. Showing up is 99% of my yoga hobby. Showing up is how my Russian is so amazing (like ridiculously good) at sports. Showing up is how anyone does what they do to make the world a better place.

Showing up builds something beautiful brick by brick, even if you don’t think you have the energy to do one more thing. And before you know it, you’ve created a world, and all you have to do is sand it down, polish it, and make it smooth and pretty.

Like I just did.

To My Curls

 

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I used to hate you.

I think I spent all of 2006 in a grocery store aisle, looking for the next product that promised to smooth you out. The next brightly-colored bottle of goop that promised to slick you down. The next electrical metal contraption that promised to iron you flat.

I used to hate the little tendrils that framed my face like grapevines. I used to hate the ends that curled up and out instead of down and under. I used to hate how you stubbornly held your shape, even when all the other girls’ hair could bounce from hairstyle to hairstyle with barely a ripple, fanning out thick and glossy like a yard of silk.

You were too poofy, too voluminous, too Victorian for a time when sleek, slender hair was all the rage. Funny thing is, I don’t think I would have minded you, if it were up to me. But it was middle school. It was 2006. And so it wasn’t up to me.

I wanted to blend in, to be cool, to be like the others. And you refused me every time. You forced me to stand out, to be unusual, to be myself. And I hated it. I was awkward as it was. I didn’t need any help from you.

“Your hair is gorgeous. Trust me,” my mother would say. “I used to pay good money for hair like that.”

I didn’t trust her, because most preteens don’t. Especially when it comes to hair. And the fact that she paid good money in the 90s to look like me wasn’t comforting. The 90s weren’t cool then like they are now.

When I was seventeen, I finally learned how to use a straightener. I ironed you out every day. You were finally glossy and shiny and slippery, like everyone else’s hair. You were hell to keep in a ponytail, and I had to use twice the amount of bobby pins, but I didn’t care. I blended in. I was cool. I was like the others.

(Until it got humid. Or rained. Or I went swimming.)

I snagged my first boyfriend the year I started ironing you out. One day I went to his house and we took a walk through the woods. It started to rain, heavy sheets of water over the trees. I was aghast. You were returning to yourself with each heavy drop.

“Can I borrow your sister’s hair straightener?” I asked him.

“But why? Your hair’s so pretty,” he said.

And then I got braver and let you out. I let the tendrils frame my face, the ringlets twist tighter and tighter, the waves squiggle up and down. I let you fall down my back, fanning out like a cut of heavy brocade. I let you play with the wind.

And slowly I realized I loved you. On days I ironed you out, I missed you. I didn’t recognize myself until I let you come back.

(I married the man you helped me snag.)

We have a lot in common, you and I. We’re moody. We’re whimsical. We’re hopelessly old-fashioned.

And sometimes, you still have a mind of your own. Sometimes you’re belligerent. Sometimes you frizz over yourself like mist on a lake, or you feel coarse as wool and you scratch my hands.

Sometimes, usually on days I’m most frustrated with you, my best friend will tell me, “Your hair is so happy today.”

And I realize she’s right.

So every day I try to notice how happy you are, now that you’re not always smoothed out, slicked down, or ironed flat. I start to notice how lovely it is that you’re happy. How lovely you are because you’re happy.

And it makes me happy too.