“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard
Fifteen years ago he walked into my dorm room on the verge of tears.
“I can’t take it anymore!” he groaned. “I’m just running in place! I aim. I sprint. I leap. I fall. I get nowhere. Nowhere!”
His desperate eyes stared into mine, hoping… searching for an answer.
His Story of Prioritization & Focus
He has dreamed of pursuing a career in software engineering since he was a kid. “Businesses worldwide will rely on my code someday,” he used to tell his computer programming teacher in high school. Now, as a junior enrolled in computer science at a reputable university, he finally has a clear shot at making his dream a reality.
He wakes up every morning filled with excitement and positive intentions. Studying is actually the first thing that crosses his mind. “I’ve got to get that chapter read,” he tells himself. But first he needs to grab some Starbucks and a muffin. “Okay, now I’m ready.”
He sits down at his desk and cracks open the Agile Software Development book for his class tomorrow. The phone rings. It’s Jen, a good friend he met in his sophomore English class. “Lunch today? Yeah, I could do that. How’s noon sound? Perfect. See you then.” Before he sits back down to read, he remembers that he skipped his workout yesterday. “A quick workout will only take forty-five minutes and it will energize my mind for a few hours of diligent studying,” he thinks to himself. He puts his sneakers on, grabs his earphones and heads over to the campus gym.
When he returns from the gym, he takes a shower and is once again ready to read. “Chapter 1: Welcome to the power of agile software development. This book is divided into…” “Ah, crap! I forgot to email my mother those photos I promised her. Heck, it will only take a second.” He quickly fires-up his laptop and logs into his email application. Before he has time to send the email, he gets a chat notification from an old high school buddy, Danny, whom he hasn’t spoken to in six months. After a 45-minute chat session, he sends the email to his mother and returns to the book.
He glances up at the wall clock and realizes he has to leave in 30 minutes to meet Jen for lunch. “Gosh, it’s pointless to get into the groove of a focused study session for just 30 measly minutes,” he says aloud. He convinces himself that it’s in his best interest to save the reading for after lunch. So he logs into an online discussion forum he participates in, replies to a few messages from his friends and then heads off to meet Jen. Once he returns from lunch an hour and a half later, he feels exhausted. The post-meal grogginess is kicking in hard. “All I need is another round of Starbucks and I’ll be ready.” He hustles out to grab it.
As he sits down at his desk with a fresh cup of coffee he repeats the phrase “Focus on your priorities!” over and over as a mantra in his mind. He cracks the book back open. “Chapter 1: Welcome to the power of agile software development. This book is divided into…” But then his neighbor knocks on his door. “Turn on the Local 6 news channel! The college apartment complex down the street is on fire!” his neighbor chants. He thinks about it for a second, puts the book down and clicks on the television. “This should only take a second…”
And another day comes closer to an end.
Her Story of Prioritization & Focus
She gets up early every morning, grabs her soccer ball, and heads outside before she even brushes her teeth, or washes her face, or eats. She juggles the ball between her feet nonstop until she achieves a continuous count of 50. An old high school coach once told her that Mia Hamm (the greatest female soccer player ever) used to do this. When she’s done, she cleans herself up for the day, grabs a glass of milk and a protein bar, and heads off to soccer practice.
Sometimes she catches up with me after practice, just before our 9 A.M. Economics class. I love it when she does, because her positive attitude is contagious. Her eyes always radiate with contentment and verve. In the few minutes before class we usually philosophize about our lives, our ambitions, and our relationships. For instance, recently she said, “It’s all about balance. We’ve got to somehow mesh our long-term ambitions with our momentary pleasures.” She always explains herself clearly until she’s confident that I understand her point of view.
Once class starts, she’s silent, entirely focused on the professor’s lecture. Her notes are more diligent than most. And although she rarely raises her hand, when she does, her question or comment usually brings a respectful smile to the professor’s face.
Outside of class, I seldom see her during the day. She locks herself away in her dorm room, or in the library, or on the soccer field, to focus on her priorities. She reads, writes, learns, and practices. She conditions her mind and her body with perpetual vigor.
Once or twice a week, when she actually takes a break, she’ll call me at lunchtime. She usually goes off on a short tangent about something she’s recently learned or experienced that excites her. And she always finishes by saying, “I’ll fill you in on the details later.” Because she knows I’m interested in hearing them. Because she mindfully extracts interesting details from data sources ― details that most of us miss.
After a little nourishment, she gets back to work. Pages turn. Notes are taken. Keys on her laptop click repeatedly. And she carries forth until her vision blurs. When it does, she gets up, juggles her soccer ball to a count of 25, and refocuses herself on her work. Again she forges ahead for another couple of hours until her brain has trouble focusing again and her belly aches with hunger. Then she swings by my dorm room.
It’s pretty late now, and both of us are done with whatever we’ve been working on. So we head out for a bite to eat. She fills me in on her day and speaks enthusiastically about the things that move her. Sometimes it’s something new she learned. Sometimes it’s an entrepreneurial idea. Sometimes it’s soccer. Or someone she met on campus. Or a song she heard on the radio that inspires her.
When we finish eating, she walks back to her dorm room. She thinks, or reads an inspiring book, or listens to music, or plays her guitar, or works on the song she’s been leisurely writing for the past few weeks. When her eyes finally get heavy, she snuggles into her bed and falls blissfully asleep in an instant.
Satisfied with today. Eager for tomorrow.
“That Advice Saved My Life”
When he walked into my dorm room on the verge of tears that day, I told him about her, and how she lives her life.
And although we don’t talk nearly as much as we used to, I received an email from him last night out of the blue. It was a cheerful email about the computer software company he started a couple years ago. As it turns out, he just landed his first six-figure contract.
In the P.S. section of the email, he wrote: “Do you remember that story you told me back in our college days about the girl who played soccer and focused like a boss on her top priorities? Thank you. That advice saved my life.”
Some Tough Truths About Our Priorities
We fill our calendars, our social media feeds, and our days with various forms of distraction and busyness, oftentimes just to avoid doing the little things that must be done… to avoid being slightly uncomfortable with the workload in front of us. The instant we feel a bit of discomfort, we run off in the direction of the nearest shiny object that catches our attention. And this habit gradually dismantles our best intentions and our true potential. Our dreams and priorities go by the wayside, and we’re left regretting another wasted day.
Yes, most of us suffer from a severe misalignment of our priorities.
In a recent survey we conducted with 700 of our Getting Back to Happy course students, we asked them questions to determine how much joy they derived from their most common daily activities. As you might expect, the joy rating for work-related obligations typically fell below voluntary personal activities. But what surprised us is this:
Most of the students surveyed said many of their voluntary personal activities did NOT give them joy and fulfillment. For example, several of them said they derived more pleasure from time dedicated to family, practicing spirituality, or working on a passion project, than from time spent watching TV and browsing social media. And yet these same exact students admitted to spending more time watching TV and browsing social media than engaging in the activities they say give them more joy and fulfillment.
If anything, our student survey shined light on a rather widespread misalignment between what we do and what we deem meaningful and enjoyable. And sadly, this misalignment ultimately leads us into bouts of senseless busyness and distraction peppered with lots of regret.
While we may not distract ourselves in the same ways, many of us share the feelings of regret associated with foolishly wasting our time away. Angel and I speak with students every single day who feel guilty and regretful for putting their priorities on the back burner. And I’ll bet, to a certain extent, you have recently felt something similar, because, perhaps, you spent an hour (or four) browsing social media or watching TV with zero return on your investment.
Some might say our tendency to perpetually waste time reveals our true priorities – that we’d rather engage in mindless busyness, distraction, and entertainment over just about anything else. But that’s not true. What’s really happening is an error in our decision-making process. To avoid discomfort in the present, we have literally conditioned ourselves to subconsciously avoid the present moment. We think about the past and future far more than we think about today… we think about other people’s social lives instead of our own… we are physically in one place and mentally in another. Without conscious presence and focus, we mindlessly occupy the present moment with low-value activities that lack meaning and joy.
And that’s why I want to remind you of these tough truths, and give you some ideas for getting back on track with what matters most…
1. Too often we use “too busy” as an excuse for poor time management.
There’s a BIG difference between being busy and being productive. Don’t confuse motion with progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but never makes any forward progress. Don’t be a rocking horse!
Truth be told, 99% of all your busyness is simply a mismanagement of your time.
And at times, you have to say “no” to good things to be able to say “yes” to important things. You simply can’t do it all. So be mindful and choose wisely.
Focus on your priorities!
What you focus on grows stronger in your life. At every moment, millions of little things compete for your attention. All these things fall into one of two categories: things that are top priorities and things that are not. You’ll never get more done by blindly working more hours on everything that comes up. Instead, you’ll get more done when you follow specific plans that measure and track top priorities and milestones. So if you want to be less busy and more successful, don’t ask how to make something more efficient until you’ve first asked, “Do I need to do this at all?”
The bottom line is that feeling like you’re doing busywork is often the result of saying yes too often. We all have obligations, but a comfortable pace can only be found by properly managing your yeses. So stop saying “yes” when you want to say “no.” You can’t always be agreeable; that’s how people take advantage of you. Sometimes you have to set clear boundaries.
You might have to say no to certain favors, or work projects, or community activities, or committees, or volunteer groups, or coaching your kid’s sports team, or some other seemingly worthwhile activity.
I know what you’re thinking – it seems unfair to say no when these are very worthwhile things to do. It kills you to say no. But you must.
Because the alternative is that you’re going to do a half-hearted, poor job at each one, be stressed beyond belief, and feel like you’re stuck in an endless cycle of failure and frustration. You won’t be getting enough sleep, your focus will get worse and worse due to exhaustion, and eventually you’ll reach a breaking point.
2. We spend lots of time talking about our priorities, but not nearly enough time actually working on them.
When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
Let that question sink in, and then remind yourself that the last six letters in the word “attraction” are “action.” If you want to attract positive changes into your life, you have to act accordingly. If you have an idea about what you want the next chapter of your life to look like, you have to DO things that support this idea every day. An idea, after all, isn’t going to do anything for you until you do something productive with it.
In fact, as long as that great idea is just sitting around in your head it’s doing far more harm than good. Your subconscious mind knows you’re procrastinating on something that’s important to you. The necessary work that you keep postponing causes stress, anxiety, fear, and usually more procrastination – a vicious cycle that continues to worsen until you interrupt it with ACTION.
And remember, you can’t lift 1,000 pounds all at once, but you can easily lift one pound 1,000 times. In repetition, your little actions have great power. You become highly skilled at whatever you do again and again. Every day offers you the opportunity to develop a ritual of success, regardless of your priorities or how you personally define success. So from this moment forward…
May your actions speak louder than your words.
May your life preach louder than your lips.
May your success be your noise in the end.
(Angel and I build tiny, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
3. We mistakenly prioritize near-term comfort over long-term fulfillment.
Think about the most common problems we deal with in our lives – from laziness to lack of exercise to unhealthy diets to procrastination, and so on.
In most cases, problems like these are not caused not by a physical ailment, but by a weakness of the mind – a weakness that urges us to avoid discomfort.
Most of us dream about the reward without the risk. The shine without the grind. But we can’t have a destination without a journey. And a journey always has costs – at the very least, you have to give up a little time and energy to take a step forward every day.
So, instead of dreaming about what you want right now, first ask yourself:
“What am I willing to give up to get it?”
Or, for those inevitably hard days:
“What is worth suffering for?”
Seriously, think about it…
If you want the six-pack abs, you have to want the sore muscles, the sweaty clothes, the mornings or afternoons at the gym, and the healthy meals.
If you want the successful business, you have to also want the long days, the stressful business deals and decisions, and the possibility of failing twenty times to learn what you need to know to succeed in the long run.
If you want something in life, you have to also want the costs of getting it! You have to be willing to put in the effort and go all the way! Otherwise, there’s no point in dreaming. This could mean losing stability and comfort for a while, and maybe even your mind on occasion. It could mean not eating what you want, or sleeping in, for weeks on end. It could mean stretching your comfort zone so thin it gives you a case of the chills. It could mean sacrificing certain relationships and daring yourself to make new ones. It could mean accepting ridicule from people. It could mean spending time alone in solitude. Solitude, though, is a gift that makes great things possible – it gives you the space you need. Everything else is a test of your determination, of how much you want it.
And if you really want it, you’ll do it, despite discomfort and rejection and the odds.
And every step will feel better than anything else you can imagine.
You will realize that the struggle is not found on the path, it is the path, and it’s worth it! So again, if you really want it, go all the way! There’s no better feeling in the world – there’s no better feeling than knowing what it means to be ALIVE. (Angel and I discuss this further in the “Passion & Growth” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Afterthoughts… On Priorities, Busyness, & Living a Meaningful Life
Angel and I are not immune to any of the points discussed above. None of us are above this stuff. Just like every other human being, sometimes we let busyness get the best of us – we let distractions get in the way of our priorities. And it takes practice just to realize this, and then even more practice to get back on track.
Over the past decade, Angel and I have gradually learned to pay more attention to the beauty and practicality of living a simpler life. A life uncluttered by most of the meaningless busyness people fill their lives with, leaving us with space for what’s truly meaningful. A life that isn’t constant rushing, worrying and stress, but instead contemplation, creation, and connection with the people and projects that matter most to us.
By redefining our priorities, and building healthy rituals to back them up, we’ve literally been able to change our lives. And this is now a healthy practice we coach our course students though every single day as well.
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stressed out a lot lately, I challenge you to rethink how you’re spending your time, and replace the meaningless with the meaningful.
All details aside, I hope you will do your best to make a meaningful day out of today, that you will dream courageously and live mindfully, that you will create something small that didn’t exist before you took action, that you will love and be loved in return, and that you will find the strength to accept and grow from the challenges you can’t change. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and wisdom in this world), that you will, when you must, be wise with your priorities, and that you will always be extra kind to yourself and others.
If you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
Which point mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.