Best-selling author of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, Alan Cohen once said, “Busyness is not a reason for not getting other things done. It is an excuse for not claiming your true priorities.” Looking at my life, you’d think my true priority was being busy. I’d always answer, “How are you?” with, “Busy,” and I lost sleep over unscheduled slots in my calendar. Not having every moment of the next day scheduled made me feel guilty, but I was having trouble staying on top of all the commitments I’d made. Due to the related reflex to compare myself to others– and come up short — I was exhausted. I wanted to stop juggling too many commitments and to start using my energy for things that really mattered to me (if only I had time to figure out what those were).
That began a trajectory toward a more meaningful life. Instead of asking, “How can I fit this into my schedule?” I started asking myself what I wanted to stop struggling with, and what I wanted to strive for instead. Rather than new ways to squeeze the most out of myself and my time every day, what do I want to discover about myself in the next month, six months, year? Working with these questions has clarified my priorities faster than any exercise or program I’d tried. While they generated long lists of answers, there were some key moments that helped me align my hopes and goals with how I use my time.
I want to stop comparing myself.
I felt tremendous pressure as a 20-something to figure out my career, relationships, and life plans. My peers, like a friend who made it into “Rolling Stone” for her climate change activism, were making news because of big accomplishments and successes. My efforts to recycle and compost seemed irrelevant by comparison. My parents, who each have more than one master’s degree, had a house, savings, and stable careers by the time they were 30. Other 20-somethings, while seemingly supportive of the need take time to explore self and world, keep the pressure on. The fear of falling behind or missing out (there’s a whole industry built around this one) kept me up at night and was driving me to pack my calendar and overcommit, keeping up the appearance of having a plan, and assuming I’ll have more time in the future for pursuing my dreams.
I want to strive for big, “impossible” dreams.
Since I was in elementary school, I’ve wanted to write a novel, get a Ph.D., and live in New Zealand. When I’m directing my energy toward my true priorities, my fears of falling behind or missing out evaporate. Taking a writing class may not immediately advance my career; reading about schools around the world won’t give me anything to show for my time; and connecting with Kiwis to learn about their country and culture doesn’t produce any concrete deliverables. But using time efficiently – what I thought was getting as much done as possible every day – became far less important than using time well – that is, in service of my priorities rather than the priorities of my culture or upbringing.
I want to discover why it’s so much work for me to rest and how to give myself permission to do so.
Unpacking my schedule — clearing room for rest and play — was challenging. Our culture sees all but work as lazy. More personally, busyness has been an effective way to ward off confusion and emptiness. But it was no more fulfilling, and I want to live a meaningful life. Rest, breaking free from busyness are worth it. I have time to ask better questions, get more targeted help and support when I need it (like from a trusted friend or therapist rather than the latest listicle or self-help blog), and find and engage my true priorities.
Originally published on June 15, 2017.