You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Prioritize What’s Most Important to You

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Good news! I finally realized that I don’t have to live my life according to every twinge of guilt that plagues my soul. In the absence of direct moral imperatives, I can choose my priorities, and I can order my days, years, and life around them.

I’ve been in a funk ever since birthing a baby. More accurately — I’ve been in one particular funk, the funk where I worry about what my abysmal housekeeping skills say about my mothering, and what my stay-at-home status says about my feminism, and what wearing a robe and unwashed hair until noon says about my success at life.

There are so many things I want to do and mean to do, and then there are all the things I feel like I should do. Motherhood doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but it does come with pre-downloaded guilt. I can’t always tell you what specific thing I feel bad about, much less why I feel bad about it, but I can assure you I almost always feel bad about something. Call it hormones or the patriarchy, the result is the same: discouragement and paralysis. I don’t do any of the things I want to do or mean to do because I’m too busying doing the things I think I should do — or procrastinating on everything.

I tried bolstering my momentum with the thrill of crossing items off my to do list. This college hack failed to work its magic in the post-grad world. For one thing, the sheer number of unconnected tasks overwhelmed me.

If my to do list was whittled down to a less overwhelming number, it contained mundane items that required far too much of a learning curve than they were worth. (Check tire pressure. Unclog the drain. Clean that rubber part of the washing machine that breeds mold. All of those things required calling up my dad and having him walk me through the process again, only to end up watching YouTube tutorials.)

Most discouraging of all, a good chunk of my to do list had to be repeated almost instantly. Sweep the floors? Check! Sweep them again because the toddler dumped Cheerio dust on the floor? Check. ….and again because he tracked in dirt after you chased him outside to sweep up the Cheerio dust in peace? Forget it.

Bottom line: accomplishing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t care about did not make me feel successful or productive. I just felt so guilty admitting that I’d rather not clean my apartment than clean it. Don’t all successful women choose a clean home over sanity? Plus, I kind of did want to clean it. Just not all the time. Not when there were other things I wanted to do with my life.

Around that point in time, I was toying with the idea that maybe I didn’t have to live my life according to these vague shoulds that haunted every stolen moment of pleasure. I noodled on that, and I noodled on what that would look like practically, to live by conscious choices judged against my own values. Another college hack came to mind: the depressing but honest quip, “Friends, School, Sleep: Pick Two.”

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Of course, this is old news for us modern women. “You can have it all — just not at the same time.” I needed to harness that truth in an empowering way, instead of a discouraging way. I couldn’t resign myself to accepting even one season of life where sweeping up Cheerio dust was the biggest accomplishment of my every day.

I needed to prioritize, yes, but I needed to know that I could pick my priorities based off my values — not off shoulds that came from whatever undefined, unexplored, unwelcome value systems muddled around in my conscience.

I had to do a mental organizing of my plans, goals, and values — hanging them up on their own hooks where I could see them, and then consciously, daily pulling them down and fitting them together into something cohesive, practical, and fulfilling. Is this the year I’m going to write a book? Nah, that doesn’t pair well with where I’m at in motherhood. Maybe next year. Is this the week I’m finally going to get together with that mom I met at the playground? No, I’m choosing to rest up from my cold. I’ll come back to that when I’m recovered. Is this the day I’m going to mop the floors? Yes, it matters to me have to a somewhat clean floors, but I am only allotting time on Thursdays to exert any cares about that.

I’m finding so much freedom, satisfaction, and oddly enough, productivity in deciding to prioritize what I actually care about and conscientiously deciding to table other things.

The hardest part of adult life is the mental load. I’ve discovered I need to set things down so that I’m not juggling an armload of unfinished tasks every time I attempt to accomplish something. I need the habit and the intention of asking, “Is this important to me? If so, is this important to me now? If not, I’ll table it until later.”

Today, I prioritized writing. I have some office work that absolutely needs to get done today, but I checked in with my priorities and energy level and decided that I would be okay sacrificing some veg time after work in order to get the office stuff done. This morning, I wrote. This morning, I let the house go to pot, I let the toddler play independently, I ignored the other items on my to do list, and I wrote.

I don’t always prioritize writing. In fact, I struggle to fit it into my life at all anymore. I just don’t have the mental bandwidth or the time to prioritize it every day., or even every month. Generally I prioritize quality time with my son over everything else — my overarching value and goal for this season of life. But today, knowing he would be fine, I told him that Mommy was writing, and she’d play with him later. And having made my choice, I wrote without guilt.

The thing I had to get over is that another person could see me make that choice and say, “This is unacceptable. I value a clean home and quality time with my kids over writing. I would not make that choice.” I constantly found myself looking at my life through those eyes of judgment, through the eyes of someone else with different priorities — and I think that’s where a lot of the guilt came from. I knew that I could never convince a critic that I made a good choice, and I couldn’t handle that judgment.

I’m learning that I don’t have to live my life on the defensive against every imaginary criticism or different lifestyle. There are many good priorities in the world. There are many people who will rank their priorities differently and find fault with mine. That’s okay. I don’t need to pretend there aren’t good reasons for prioritizing different things than I do. I don’t need to adopt their ranking if I see otherwise. My priorities are different in this stage of life, in this season, on this day. And if I ever feel convicted to change those priorities, I can do so when and if that time comes.

When I became intentional about what I valued and what I wanted to accomplish, I could look at my life through my own priorities. Instead of focusing on all the things I still needed to do, I could focus on the things I chose to accomplish that day and feel successful. I didn’t have to hide from the things I didn’t do. I could look them squarely in the eye and say, “You’re not a priority right now, dishes. I’m cleaning the bathroom instead, and then I’m taking a nap.”

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