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.

On Ukuleles

I’m not always good at asking for gifts. Someone says, “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’m like, “Um… stuff and things, please.”

But this past holiday season I planned ahead. I gave little lists to the various people who wanted them, and one of the presents I asked for was a thing I’d had tucked in my mind for a long time:

a ukulele.

I don’t know what drew me to the ukulele in particular. Maybe it’s because they’re small and only have four strings, although I did used to play the violin, which fits all those requirements. But a violin is much more labor-intensive; I appreciate the compact little ukulele, which you can pick up and strum with cheerful determination.

Sure enough, on Christmas morning an oddly-shaped package was labeled to me. It was my very own gorgeous little ukulele. I was so excited I spent three hours learning chords.

While I’m still rusty—though I do fancy myself a quick learner—the ukulele has already brought a lot of joy to me. There’s something about being able to sit down and make music, with no need to talk, no need to think really, and to be creative simply by showing up and letting your mind spill out into sound.

Sometimes as a writer, I want to be able to write without using any words, letting the repetition and flow of my mind create something without effort. But of course, this is the antithesis of writing. One must naturally exert effort, in order for the words to make any sense.

Playing the ukulele is my writing without words; my creativity finds a voice even when my words are knotted, and I can create something beautiful even when my mind is numb.

For the Love of Old Things

Have you ever recognized the insane number of little thoughts that flit through your head each day? The opinions you form, the emotions you feel, the jokes you tell yourself? Sometimes my mind is like a pinball machine, bouncing from subject to subject (or, more accurately, like a person walking through the living room in the dark, bumping from piece of furniture to piece of furniture. Not that this has ever happened).

My mind makes these frantic trips around the space that is my brain and creates its own culture, its own environment, inside my head. It sounds weird to say it this way, but I think it’s true for us all. We all have roads our minds travel over and over, sometimes deepening them into ruts. We all have trains our minds ride for a while before getting off to ride the next one. Sometimes we ride one train too long or too often and we have to exit quickly and never buy another ticket…

The truth is, there are thoughts we think that no one else will ever know about, not only because it would be annoying as hell for us to tell everything we think, but also because we ourselves aren’t always aware of what the mind entertains itself with. These thoughts are lost, sloughing off with each day, never preserved, never contained. Of course, they must be in the brain somewhere, and sometimes a remembered thought hits us suddenly years down the road.

But so much of our internal lives are never remembered by the world, and that’s terrifying to me.

My best friend teases me for liking “old things,” antiques and dried flowers and doilies. One time I asked her opinion of my vintage-style home decorating, and then… I never asked her opinion again. Moronically and hilariously, it’s one of our major disagreements (along with the role of fruit in dessert).

But I will forever like “old things” because they have what we often call “character.” You go in an old house and see the scratched wood floor and say “wow, this house has character.” It’s a way of recognizing that this place, this thing, has seen life. It’s been around for years of thoughts and conversations and emotions.

I think that’s why I love my old things so much: they are a way to grab hold of those million fleeting thoughts that bump around in our brains day after day. Someday we will be gone, and our thoughts with us, and all that’s left will be the coffee tables we stubbed our toes on and the picture frames we dusted and the dishes we ate off of. For a brief moment, each dusty thing in an antique store was once audience to the thoughts and feelings that no one else will ever know or remember. And now they are all that’s left.

Does this sound nihilistic? I don’t mean to be nihilistic. I’m just trying to defend my love of old things.

I also think this is what gives me even more conviction to be a good writer. The great moments in history, the wars and celebration and speeches, will always be remembered. But it’s the little things, the jokes around the dinner table, the shade of blue the sky was on a certain day, or the smell of your grandmother’s perfume when you hugged her, that won’t be.

That’s a shame, because all those little details are what life is. And that is even more noble and real than the great moments could ever hope to be. But out of sight, out of mind. We don’t realize how good our days are until they’ve passed and become the good old days.

This is why I’ll always love my old things and try to remember each stupid detail of each humdrum phase of life. This is why I have a shelf full of journals and random scraps of thoughts written on paper and phrases typed into my phone on the go so I don’t forget them. Because these little stories are life, and these little stories are what we end up caring about.

These little stories are what writers are here to tell.