If you’re like me, you have more than one priority.
Now, I’ve read Essentialism and The One Thing, and heard many experts discuss why focusing matters. I don’t disagree, but I’m also a creative thinker. When I tell myself to stop exploring options, to stick to what truly matters, my world closes in around me. I wonder: do you feel this way, too? Do you hear people talking about focus, and wonder what’s wrong with you? Have you labeled yourself as undisciplined or unfocused after failing to stick to a short list of priorities?
Let’s take a look at an example.
Which is more important to you: a healthy body or your relationship with your best friend?
There are a lot of books out there that urge you to prioritize your own physical health over your relationship with your best friend. Logically, they’d claim that if you’re not healthy, you can’t be a good friend anyway. However, in a real-world scenario, most of us would choose our best friend over our health. Say our best friend calls us in crisis at the exact moment when we’ve suited up to go for a run. It’s not just any run. We’ve been putting off our exercise for weeks, and we know we need to get ourselves back in motion to get back on track. We’ve finally motivated ourselves to do it … and now our friend is hurting. Even though exercise is important, most likely we’ll delay our run and spend time talking with our friend.
Or consider the end of our lives. When our health is no longer in our control, which will matter to us more: our health or our best friend?
My point is this: your health and your relationship with your best friend are likely both important to you. Forcing yourself to put them in an ordered list creates a false choice. You likely have goals for both of these important areas of life … and those simultaneous goals don’t cancel each other out.
A priority is singular.
The reason people have begun talk about priorities, plural, is because life is complex. We need a word to describe the categories in our lives that don’t get checked off a list by a certain completion date, the way goals do. I’d like to propose a writerly word to fill this gap: theme. A story generally has an overall theme, with related motifs woven into it. I think our lives have a similar structure. Let’s explore a practical application. The overall theme in a life might be connectedness. If so, what actions must I take personally and with others to live into this theme? By considering theme, I avoid forcing myself to make a false choice between my friends and my health.
As we’ve been discussing recently on the Writerly Play blog, the questions that we ask inform the answers we discover. By asking a more expansive question, we avoid losing our way in a question that may be splitting hairs rather than helping us live our most fulfilled lives.
Why does all of this matter?
If you struggle to create an ordered list of priorities, perhaps it might help you to think about your life’s theme. What motifs weave into that theme? Which ones fit now, in this season, and which might fit later? Which are lifelong habits that deserve ongoing attention?
Pursuing your life’s theme is a marathon, but the most effective way to meet goals along the way is to think of them as sprints.
We will never check off a box and no longer need to brush and floss our teeth, to eat healthy food, or spend time with loved ones. Similarly, if we want to play an instrument, participate in a sport, or maintain a creative skill such as drawing, creative writing or improvisation, we need to carve out a certain amount of regular time to practice.
Here’s where the idea of a sprint becomes so useful. Most of these practices can be done in a few minutes a day. However, developing the foundational skills can take many hours. If you set out to learn to draw and do it in five minutes a week, you’re not going to have much fun with your drawing for quite some time. You’re likely to get frustrated and give up, honestly, because your progress will be so slow.
The best way to make true progress on one of these kinds of projects is to set a goal, focus tightly on that goal in a “sprint,” and then once you’ve achieved a certain level of skill, maintain the practice at a more steady pace. It may be that for a week, you set aside all of your practices so you can develop a new skill. But after that week, you can pick them all back up, adding the new one.
You don’t have to give up everything you love in order to try something new.
If you need a kickstart for a project that’s been calling to you, try a sprint. Give yourself room to experiment and find the ways of working, creating and living that work best for you. Your life’s theme is expansive, and will continue to play out in surprising ways. Allow yourself room to grow.