Get Priorities Straight! (But How?)

Thank you for the wonderful comments, both here and on Facebook, regarding my change in priorities and the decision to cut down from blogging three times per week to just once per week.

In addition to the “me, too!” comments, I received quite a bit of email asking both “why?” and “how did you know what to cut?”

Let me take the “why?” question first.

Re-Visioning Your Life

Like many of you, life had been lived in the fast lane for so long that I only dimly remembered any other life. Sometimes there’s no choice, as I well remember: combining working with raising children with running a home with doing volunteer work with being a mom/nana/sister/daughter/friend/mentor/teacher to various people.

I always got a lot of work done–my generation was raised on the Puritan work ethic. But there was no time to do things like walk, have lunch with a friend, or even read a good book, much less go to bed early to get enough rest. And I couldn’t “write in flow”because there simply wasn’t much relaxed writing time.

Also, like many of you, I wondered when the craziness was going to end. I’m afraid I didn’t seriously do anything about it until I hit a few potentially serious health problems. That will get your attention! I thought about it and made plans all year so that when I hit the big 6-0 last month, I would be ready. Quality of life, here I come!

Nuts and Bolts of Cutting Back

Something had to give–that was clear. Several somethings actually. I didn’t need one more time management idea. And we can’t “manage time” really. We can only manage ourselves. When life is this full, the only way to make more time is to cut things out. But what things? And how?

Tough questions, and I’ve been reading books and journaling like mad all year on those topics. I didn’t want to make any knee-jerk decisions based on exhaustion or fear for my health.

For those of you who asked, briefly these are the steps I took–and ones you can certainly take–to reclaim your life and health and (my biggest dream) time to write!

Be Methodical

First, I figured out where all my time was going. I was the proverbial hamster on a wheel, but sometimes my “to do” list was longer when I went to bed than when I started work in the morning! But truthfully, I had no idea where many of my hours were going.

I kept track of my hours for about six weeks, writing down not just how I spent my time in general, but specifically. (I used to just mark off “work hours.” This time I printed out time grids broken into half hours around the clock, and marked off everything. I also broke down “work” into things like writing fiction, work-for-hire writing, blogging, social networking, critiquing, studying, answering email, etc.)

It was time-consuming, but those time grids yielded a wealth of information. I could see easily which work segments contributed the most money per hour. I was shocked how much time got wasted on unnecessary email and web surfing, usually when I was tired and didn’t want to start the next project on my list.

I did the same time grid idea for volunteer work, babysitting grandkids, and all the other ways I was spending my time. I knew I wasn’t going to sacrifice weekly time with my grandkids, but frankly, my energy was running out before the week ended.

What Are Your Priorities?

After adding up the hours in various categories (work, sleep, eating, grandkids, healthy activities like walking, etc.), I then listed my activities in order of priority based on the amount of time used per week. It was a shocker. The things I knew in my heart were my priorities were closer to the bottom of my list than the top. I was surprised how little time I spent weekly on the people and work projects that were the loves of my life.

One book I read said that how you spend your time reveals your true priorities, no matter what you claim they are. So I decided to journal the answers to several questions over the course of last summer. Here are some of the questions I prayerfully asked myself:

  • Am I living a balanced life?
  • What’s missing from my list of activities?
  • If I died tomorrow, would I be happy with how I spent my last week on earth? [Not such a far-fetched question as my dad died at 61.]
  • Are my priorities what I thought they would be at this time of my life?
  • How much of my time is spent doing for others things they could (and should be) doing for themselves?
  • Which of my activities bring me joy?
  • Am I involved in too many activities? [I tend to join things and run groups, but I forget to drop out of one thing before taking on another. Last summer I still had leadership positions in three volunteer organizations that involved a lot of time.]

I took my time journaling those questions and answers. I was ruthlessly honest since I knew no one but me would see it.

Take Action–Create New Priorities

You’re not cutting anything out yet, but evaluate your time-grid list based on things revealed by your journaling. (I know this looks like a lot of work, but I took most of last year to do it and think about it.) Consciously choose new priorities based on what’s really important and necessary for you.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What’s most important to you at this time in your life?
  • Where would you like to spend more of your time?
  • Are there areas that need your attention (your health, a relationship, career, finances, kids/grandkids?)
  • Is there a secret dream or desire that keeps getting put on the back burner that you’d like to spend time on? What is it?

Give yourself permission to be totally honest about your desires. Most of our lives seem to be run on “shoulds.” Forget about them for the moment and focus on the true desires of your heart. What feels vitally important to your well-being?

Now Comes the Hard Part

While I have gotten better over the years at saying “no” to obvious cases of abuse or unfair business practices or demands, it is still the hardest thing for me to do. But we can’t make time for the things that are truly our priorities (including our own health) if we can’t say “no” to what is dragging us under.

If you’re like most people, you probably find yourself saying yes to things that are not a priority for you. I know I’ve blogged about this topic a lot. We tend to say “yes” too quickly, and then we’re stuck with our commitment.

What stops us from saying “no” or “I want to get out of this party/lunch/volunteer position/etc.”? Many reasons. We’re afraid we’ll disappoint others. We’re afraid we’ll make someone mad, and we don’t want to deal with it. People might not like us. There could be serious consequences (losing a job or relationship). We’re afraid to say “no.”

A Fear Guideline

Here is a terrific question you can use to help you determine whether fear is stopping you from saying “no” to something in your life. It’s the $64,000 question that finally helped me weed out and/or cut back on some activities and “get a life.” Here’s the question:

If you could say no to someone or something, knowing that there would be absolutely no hard feelings or negative consequences, who or what would you say no to?

Once I was honest with myself, using that question as a guideline, the decisions came quickly. I started taking action, small step at a time, to carve out a writing life that I wanted. Cutting down on blogging time was just one of many decisions I made in the last part of 2011 so that 2012 would reflect my priorities better.

How about you? Do you need to take some time to reflect and make course corrections? I’m behind you all the way!

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