Priorities, Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand

One thing I need to remind myself of often is the unpleasant reality that “working” can be one of the most insidious forms of procrastination. Many times I can distract myself or delay working on my highest priorities or the most important things because I convince myself that I am busy being otherwise productive. I love my daily To Do List. It makes me feel organized and productive just writing everything down in one place so that I can map out the day strategically. I always check my calendar for any classes, meetings, or appointments which occur at particular times and add them as well as deliverables, assignments, and errands for the day. Bizarrely though, I find I always include even the things which I do everyday anyway, along with some things which are easy and quick, and still possibly others which are already pretty much done (ok,ok sometimes they actually are already done). It’s a little ridiculous, but being able to cross a few things off right away or without much effort gives me a psychological boost. Although probably not the best use of my time, this is all relatively innocuous. The real problem is when I find myself picking and choosing (aka cherry picking) only those things which I want to do or which have less impact or urgency at the expense of real priorities.

Now currently 6.5 months into my Happiness Project (actually I am shocked I am that far in already!), I am noticing some patterns which are a bit disconcerting. Although in reality this shouldn’t be a surprise to me, and probably isn’t to anyone who knows me well, I tend to be very consistent (#Upholder) and happy to maintain any of the more task-y type resolutions. I love earning gold stars, so those things which I can very objectively check off my chart as being completed, I usually do without much fuss. And while I think it’s great that I diligent with my One Sentence Journal, keeping a budget, and brainstorming for 5 minutes everyday, it shouldn’t be at the expense of some of the bigger and more important items. Nor come with the cost of being snappish or short tempered with my husband because I didn’t have time to accomplish every.single.item on my never-ending To Do List everyday (aka making it my unofficial Unhappiness Project). Although I know based on all my ongoing research, personal experience, not to mention common sense, that in terms of positive impact to my subjective wellbeing, resolutions which require me to “be generous” or “give proofs of love” are clearly a better use of my time and energy than some of the others like “mise en place,” it can be hard to execute on them. I really feel happy when I am productive, but shifting my attitude and improving my interactions with others is no doubt a higher calling and ideal to pursue. Rather than letting all the many tasks overwhelm me and crowd out the day, I need to stop trying to stop blaming productivity for my procrastination.

One of my favorite illustrations (originally shared by one of my good friends, Lindsay) helps me often when I struggle to prioritize. Imagine you have a jar – possibly a Mason jar that usually holds a salad you prepared as part your meal prep routine 🙂 Alongside it you have a pile of sand, several small stones, and few bigger rocks. In order to fit everything into the jar, you have to start by placing the bigger rocks into the jar first, then fitting the small stones around them and finally filling the remaining gaps with the sand. If you start with the sand or even the stones, you’ll run out of space before you get to the big rocks. In the same way, our time is often too limited to allow for filling our days with the small and meaningless things like sand. We should strive to work on the big rocks and priorities first and foremost. Then we can worry about some of the other things which are important or necessary and finally fill in the rest with that which has much less impact. When we fail to do so, our lives, just like the jar can easily become overcrowded, leaving us strapped for space and time for the biggest and most important aspects.

And as I assess my progress on this project and many other aspects of my life, I see clearly that I need to continue to work towards a better balance between my goals, responsibilities, and fun. The start of the year (although probably no time is a bad time!) is ideal for some real self-reflection and critical thinking about what we are doing and why. I don’t want to find myself so wrapped up in the minutiae “sand” of life that I miss out on the big picture. It would be far too easy for the whole year to fly by “working so hard” on trivial niceties that the real priorities are crowded out. Clearly establishing what our “big rocks” are and then fitting everything else around them is an endeavor worth undertaking.

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