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.

Be a Person, Not a Brand

As a freelance writer, a lot of the advice I’ve come across for building a blog, a client base, and social media following all boils down to one mantra, humming over and over and over:

Build your brand.

It’s the mantra of many a millennial. In the internet age, the dream is that we can all achieve success with our passions. We just have to market ourselves enough, post on social media enough, add a healthy dose of capitalism, and boom. The career of our dreams.

The phrase means that if you want to be an entrepreneur or creative, if you want to have a nontraditional career where you work from home or build a business, you must market yourself, sell yourself like a product. You must create an empire of one: you.

Every time I hear that phrase, build your brand, my soul shrinks back and grits its teeth, as if my entire being has just bitten into a metaphysical lemon. The mantra sounds good, and it’s worked, really well, for a lot of people. And I’m happy for them; I really am. But the idea at the root of branding yourself is one that absolutely terrifies me, because I think the implications of it go farther than we’re willing to consider.

A brand is a created entity. A brand is something a corporation makes to sell another thing. A brand is a surface-level household name constructed to be consumed. Oreos: you eat them. Nikes: you wear them. Sharpies: you bleed them dry. (I think I have a future in slogan writing, by the way.)

The truth is, human beings are so much more valuable than that. Humans are fragile and strong. We are terrifying and beautiful. We fly high and sink low. We are perfect and flawed, and the work we create is the same. There is so much more to us than the selling of a product or service.

Maybe you insist that I’m misunderstanding this phrase. Maybe it doesn’t mean what I’m taking it to mean. But then I have to ask: why are we using words like “brand” to describe people? People, with minds and souls that are somehow, magically, blessedly able to transcend the physical and inject everyday life with resilience and beauty and hope. The term “brand” to describe personhood is not just inappropriate; it’s insulting. Perhaps by using such paltry words to describe something so inherently magnificent, we are unconsciously saying what we tend to believe. Perhaps we are falling into the universal human trap: to take something valuable and trash it.

I’ve tried, as a writer, to build my brand, to treat my craft like a business and my self like a product. I’ve tried to blog in a way that sells, with flashy catchphrases and trendy buzzwords. I’ve tried to use social media to optimize my followers, with perfectly-curated pictures and relatable captions. I’ve tried to make flimsy business connections that are no more than a click on a web platform.

And all due respect to those who’ve achieved great success this way, but it’s not for me. When I write, I want it to be what I was born to say. When I post photos and say things online, I want it to be sharing something beautiful and making someone laugh. When I meet people, I want it to be in person, and I want it to be a real relationship.

The build-your-brand mentality may seem innocuous, but the problem is that this mentality doesn’t stay in the business world; it seeps into our mental states and social lives and personal development. I see a generation just a little younger than me growing up thinking that it’s normal to always be building yourself as a marketable image, never getting the chance to close the blinds, loosen up, have fun, and just be a person. I see us unable to accept each other as complex, three-dimensional people, instead choosing to commodify each other, to buy each other and throw each other away. I see us compromising the purity of our passions, crafts, and trades in the name of what seems like an easy ticket to a career. The internet may allow us to pursue our vocations like never before, but it has the danger of making our vocations the only thing people see in us. And this is a tragic, tragic thing.

So please: don’t be a brand. Be a person. It’s awkward and painful and vulnerable, but it’s also wild and beautiful and unique. You can create and accomplish far more meaningful things, a far more meaningful life, by just being a person. Because you already have, and you already are.

Curating Empty Museums

My best friend and I are fond of “curating.”

It started when she was decorating her room and wanted to arrange her framed photos like those artsy gallery walls you see on Pinterest. It felt as if the description of every pin we found had some derivative of the word “curate” in it. So “curated” became our term for good decorating skills.

“Those succulents are so curated.”

“I love those curated quotes.”

“Look at my vase of flowers! I’m curating!”

Eventually, our definition of the word got a little out of hand. Like all overly-beloved words and phrases, “curating” and its various forms has become a general term for anything nominally attractive.

“This coffee is so curated.”

“I love your curated outfit.”

“Look at our beautiful breakfast! We’re curating!”

curating
A still life-style food spread, coffee, quotes on a napkin, and all the Starbucks advertising I can muster. A classic example of millennial “curating.”

Hopelessly millennial as it seems, I think our throwing around of the word “curating” is rather harmless. For my part at least, I find it helps me find beauty in ordinary things (how’s that for hopelessly millennial). Also, it’s a fun inside joke.

But it’s interesting, because the traditional sense of the verb “to curate” creates connotations of being selective and intentional, of prize and value. We picture stuffy professor types showing grubby kids around a museum.

These days, we’re all encouraged to be curators of our own lives. There’s so much mental noise we come across day to day, from the myriad voices on social media platforms, to email, to texts, to phone calls, to ignored phone calls, to voice messages we keep putting off listening to. We are encouraged to manage all this noise, to intentionally choose what we see and do not see.

You hate the political tirades your one Facebook friend keeps posting? Unfollow him. Spotify is playing a song you dislike? Skip it. You keep seeing ads for ___ and you hate ___? Tell the internet you hate ___ and the internet will show you ads for stuff you don’t hate.

We only hear from the Facebook friends we agree with. We only listen to the songs we like. We only see (and most likely buy from) the ads we’re interested in. Slowly, our lives are becoming curated to our own interests.

curating

I realized this most jarringly when driving home from work this week. The radio was playing one of my favorite songs, and so of course I sang along and bobbed my head and generally looked dumb while driving home. Then as the end of the song approached, I found myself reaching for the radio’s nonexistent “skip” button.

Usually, when I play the song on my phone, I skip the end, because I know what the end sounds like and I want to go on to the high of a new song. Skip skip skip. Curate curate curate.

Unfortunately, the sheer amount of mental noise makes some amount of curating absolutely necessary. I’ve personally found it very easy to become emotionally over-invested in all the stuff out there that I have to mute or block or unfollow certain people so I can maintain my sanity.

Perhaps the danger is not in curating, but in being so used to curating that we forget we’re even curating in the first place. Instead of being intentional about what we allow into our sphere, we become used to a life that is user-friendly. And then, when life doesn’t meet our expectations, we become frustrated.

But the reality is, you can’t unlisten to a friend who’s talking about politics right in front of you. You can’t skip a song on the radio. You can’t tear down billboards on the side of the highway just because you don’t like seeing ads for funeral homes. In real life, you deal with these little foils to your curating. You learn from them. You learn how to get over them. You might even learn that you like them.

Sometimes listening to a friend you disagree with makes you smarter. Sometimes listening to an entire song makes you enjoy it more. Sometimes an advertisement… okay, advertisements are trash. But sometimes you have to deal with trash.

If we’re so used to curating our life experiences we can’t function without that high level of control, I’m afraid of where it might lead us. I wonder if in the end we’ll each find ourselves alone, curators of our own empty, sterilized museums.