November 11, 2011

Narrowing the Priorities

When I first moved to New York, a friend set me up on a lunch date with a woman who had the kind of career I could only dream about. We met in a leafy spot in Bryant Park. She made her red miniskirt look like the natural, obvious choice for an esteemed intellectual: completely right. I was so nervous I could barely eat; she ordered chicken skewers and a bit of dipping sauce dripped on her chin. It was like having lunch with Nigella Lawson: frighteningly intelligent, head-spinningly sensuous, and totally at ease with her body and her power. I thought she was rad.

She was also very realistic. Here was a woman with a top-of-the-heap creative job, but there were limits: “I can write and have a boyfriend, or I can edit and write,” she said, “but I can’t write and edit and have a boyfriend.”

I thought of that lunch when I saw this silly pin on Pinterest. On the one hand, it plays into all the expectations of that maddening I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it illusion. It makes me angry that’s even the expectation.

On the other hand, it’s pretty funny.

I was quick to feel like my life was a little soulless this week: I had a killer day at work on Monday, and then still managed to make dinner and go to my crazy suspended-from-the-wall strength training class. I should have felt like I was kicking ass and taking names. Instead I felt overly busy and empty. So what gave? Work, write, exercise, clean, cook––If you can only choose two any give day, maybe I was picking the wrong two. Because the thing that makes me feel most grounded, connected, and inspired is checking in here. And the days since I’ve done that have been too many.

Does the idea of only picking two priorities a day kind of send you into a panic? For some reason, putting a limit on what I can do each day feels strangely liberating. Going to the dry cleaner? That’s not happening. Cleaning out the closet? Nope. Having to look hard and choose helps me really zero in on what matters. Some days, it’s cooking and listening to Conway and Loretta while I chop onions. Other days it’s picking up a rotisserie chicken and a salad so that I have more time to do whatever else feels more important.

The list of responsibilities and to dos grows long fast. And sometimes life gets busy and we have to buck up and take care of business. But that’s different from doing it all for the sake of doing it all, all of the time. How many of us feel worse off for the constantly trying and failing?

Me, for one. There are women made of hardier stuff who can keep going and going (and going), checking off items on a list a mile long. I admire them greatly. But I’m not one of them. That kind of busyness puts me in a frenzy: it makes me feel scattered and uncentered. And to what end? Why––and for whom––would I be doing all of that exactly?

How can we duck out of the expectations it’s all so easy to buy into, and check in with our own values and needs? What really matters to us? I guess it’s all about taking things off auto-pilot, which we end up talking about here a lot. How can we keep being present in the everyday, in a way that really means something to us?

For me at least, it might be a matter of keeping things simple: Take work off the list, and then choose two: see a friend, do the laundry, cook dinner, exercise, write. Choose two. Everyday this week that’s been my mantra. It makes it clear pretty fast what’s needed, what matters, and what will really make the day feel worthwhile.

So this is what I’ve been thinking about for my weekday life, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. But I also realize it’s Friday, and you’ve got weekend baking and sexy cocktails on the brain. So on that front, Aretha is in order. Also, feathers:

Happy weekend, friends!

Photo by sweetblue on etsy

Related Posts with Thumbnails


  • Cadi: Just what I needed, as always. I am SO guilty of trying to do it all, not succeeding (and feeling like I failed miserably), and them coming unglued because I’ve stressed myself into a dither. Why do we do this to ourselves?

    As of late I’ve been trying to take it easy on myself (and the notion of Choose Two is brilliant). I am always so in awe of these women who are so seemingly together, but I’m coming to grips with the idea that not all of us are meant to be Wonder Woman, and we are all this amazing in our own way. It takes regular reminding to pat oneself on the back and say ‘you’re doing just fine.’

    Happy Friday Sarah, I love waking up to a new post from you. Make it a great day!6 years ago

  • Staci Magnolia: This is exactly what I’ve been going through lately, as well!!
    I have two jobs that have me working 14+ hours 3-4 days/week, my own apartment, and a (stellar) boyfriend.
    I used to be hard on myself when the dishes weren’t done or there were piles of laundry in the wings.
    Now though I’ve realized I have no one to impress and I work through my tasks as time and sanity allows. All the while still giving myself time to catch up on my favorite shows and play around on the internet…..
    I love a tidy abode but not at the expense of feeling stretched too thin.
    Isn’t it interesting how just changing your thinking can change so much?6 years ago

  • Julie: Oh Sarah, I love this idea! I’m going to try to pick two all next week (I have a long list and a crazy weekend…so I’ll start fresh on Sunday, ha!). And thanks for sharing that hilarious print – I keep thinking about it.

    Happy weekend to you!6 years ago

  • Jessica: I’ve been thinking about this as I was extremely ill last week, with 2 ER visits. This week, I’ve been better, but still tiring easily. My first morning working again (I work from home), I clearly heard my internal voice starting to gear up — it was so late in the morning, I hadn’t made any progress, I was going to waste another day. I was able, for almost the first time ever, to let it go and tell myself, You know, it’s going to be okay. The world is not ending. I will get something done, and that is okay.
    Giving myself permission to do less actually helped me do more, and just as important, helped me recognize what I was accomplishing: a couple hours of work, not berating myself, continuing to recover and heal. I like the “pick two” idea as a way of giving this some structure so that I have a construct to fall back on when I get too spun up again.6 years ago

  • Bekah: Sarah,
    You are so timely, as always! It seems like every woman I know feels pulled in too many directions at once this year. It’s such a relief to know that we don’t have to do it all, but it’s so hard to implement. Thank you for this suggestion. Perhaps re-thinking priorities is the true key, and simply picking two things to accomplish each day will increase the quality of what we do…and the quality of our lives!

    I’ve had to make the choice to let dishes and (clean) laundry pile up until I get to them to get other priorities taken care of. And you know what? It’s been ok! Life has gone on! Demanding a little less all-’round perfection has created a more perfect sense of self. Odd how that works.

    Thank you as always for posting! It’s such a treat to read.6 years ago

  • Suse: For me: I would switch out the word “priorities” and change it with “scope.” (Narrow my scope.)

    “Trying and failing”? I try to start small and give myself credit just for trying. Then failing doesn’t seem so large.

    It’s tough, ain’t it.6 years ago

  • EB: It’s Friday. I say we choose two cocktails and call it quits!
    No really… can that be my choice?6 years ago

  • Anne: Lovely, you so captured my sentiments that you inspired my most recent blog post.
    Two is my new mantra!6 years ago

  • Kathy: Sarah, This could not have come at a better time for me! I have been feeling so overwhelmed with life lately and trying to accomplish too many things at once. Just the busy-ness of work is enough to make one crazy….then it’s cooking, cleaning, many dr appointments and dealing with medical stuff and then feeling so tired on top of that. I’m sad when I feel too tired to have a great conversation with my boyfriend… so choose two is going to become my new thing. There ‘s only so much you can do between 5:30 and 10:30! I will be doing TWO things!6 years ago

  • Cait: Took years of burning myself and running around to realize I need to change something. A lot of constant awareness that it was ok if everything on my list didnt get done. I still do the crazy long mile to do list (if I didnt the world would fall apart of course!), but now I pick a few things off it that HAVE to get done on a particular day. If other stuff does AWESOME if nothing else does (guess what the world didnt fall apart!) good luck finding the balance 🙂6 years ago

  • jackie: another wonderful, timely post.
    add a baby in the mix and i am pulling my hair out (no, wait, my hair is falling out on its own due to hormones)…
    i need to let go of the long to-do list and break things down into smaller parts. i like it!6 years ago

  • cristina: thank you for this, sarah! i’m a new reader but have gotten totally hooked and this topic really hits home as i struggle to juggle. think i need to take a hatchet to my todo list. cheers!6 years ago

  • Heather Grilliot: yup, your my favorite. You ALWAYS seem to know what’s on my mind. As always…thanks Sarah6 years ago

  • Danielle: I’ve been plagued with these thoughts for months now. I can’t seem to find the time to do all the things I want to do, and then I feel like I end up doing nothing. It’s hard for me to pick the one or two things I should do for the day, because I sort of mourn the other stuff that gets pushed aside. I should really get out more.

    Today my two things are: vacuum the house and make princess crowns with The Children.6 years ago

  • Margaret: A great idea! And one I’ve been trying to implement for the past 2 years; I call it “Better Living through Excel Spreadsheets.” No, I don’t really call it that, but I did figure out that I lose track of all the worthwhile things that I do and periodically get lost in the ‘But why didn’t I get to This or That?” syndrome. When I make a monthly worksheet with the goals on the left (writing, exercise, socializing, etc.) and tally them on the right, I get a better sense of how I’ve TRIED. And when I look over my notes (30 min, 3.2 miles, crossed railroad bridge!), I remember the joy I had then, instead of feeling sorry for myself.
    It works well with Pick Two, since obviously you have to rotate the goals, and this helps you see the gaps, or what you’re ignoring, like, you know, job search stuff! Which reminds me…6 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: Yes. Absolutely yes. Priorities and being present and not stretching myself too thin – it’s all connected and all important. Thanks for this, Sarah. (Good to see you back here.) xo6 years ago

  • Rachel: yep. just what i needed today. i woke up making a list in my head of everything i needed to do today. this helped me breathe. thanks.6 years ago

  • Kristina L: Great thoughts! Reminds me of an article I bookmarked and keep returning to:

    The main thought of the article is we get more done by making our to-do lists shorter, and we’re more motivated to work on closed to-do lists than unconquerable open to-do lists.6 years ago

  • geek+nerd: Your posts are just singing to me lately. YES! I totally struggle with this, yes, I do feel like a big FAIL when I don’t get everything done, and yes, that is utterly ridiculous.

    This whole juggling act has definitely been compounded by going through a very sudden divorce. What? I need to move my entire life to a different state, become a commuter and still maintain my fantastic record at my 9-5 job? Plus exercise, and cook, and clean, and try to not be a social hermit? It’s all exhausting!

    I’ve come up with a two out of three theory. For every two areas in my life that I’m shining, there is one that suffers for attention. For example, my exercise and social life has been great lately – but I have mountains of laundry and dishes, whoops.

    I was supposed to go to a birthday party tonight, but your post has inspired me to stay in. It’s pretty obvious that those mountains of laundry and dishes need to be conquered!6 years ago

  • Amanda: My mantra is “don’t think, DO.” Gets me out of my head, away from my list. I find I very naturally end up doing the things that take priority in my life, without even trying.6 years ago

  • Every day this week I’ve been saying to myself: Choose two. And it’s really helped keep me sane!

    Cadi, I love, “Your doing just fine.” I also sometimes say to myself, “I’m doing my best.” Then I shrug. It helps!

    Staci Magnolia, I love the way you put it! “I love a tidy abode but not at the expense of feeling stretched too thin.
    Isn’t it interesting how just changing your thinking can change so much?” It IS interesting. In fact, it’s kind of amazing! The hard part I find is training myself to come back to those grounding thoughts.

    Julie, I hope this is helping you through all the craziness!

    Jessica, I hope you are on your way to recovery, and I think this point is so wise: “Giving myself permission to do less actually helped me do more.” I so agree.

    Bekah, Maybe I should have called this post, “Narrowing the prorities and lowering our expectations,” cause you’re so right: the world goes on whether the dishes are clean and giving ourselves permission to let go of the guilt around those undone tasks really does create a “more perfect sense of self.”

    Suse, I love the idea of starting small and taking tiny steps. Such a good reminder.

    EB, YES! 🙂

    Anne, Yay, mine too!

    Kathy, “There ‘s only so much you can do between 5:30 and 10:30!” Ain’t that the truth!

    Cait, Isn’t it funny how we have to get so tuckered out before we realize we’ve got to change our approach? Balance of course is tricky (and as fleeting a perfectly-balanced seesaw), but making time for what matters goes a long way to making me feel good.

    Jackie, I can’t even imagine what adding a baby to the mix does, but I think it probably increases your need for good self-care even more (and, of course, makes it harder to come by). At least they’re cute! 🙂

    Welcome, Cristina! So nice to have you!

    Heather, As always, thank YOU for reading!

    Danielle, I LOVE your two for the day.

    Margaret, Hahaha, I’m dying. That’s hilarious. I love the idea of keeping track of the trying and tallying the good stuff so you can see just how much you’ve made room for. I, too, am quick to feel like I’m always falling short. How satisfying to see the accomplishments right there in black and white!

    Katie, Let’s keep reminding each other of these things. That’s one reason I love your lists so much.

    Rachel, Ugh, I know that feeling. It’s paralyzing and crazy-making. How you found your way through the stress.

    geek+nerd, Your comment reminds me that sometimes the thing that will actually make us feel content in our lives isn’t always the most obvious. “Go to birthday party,” certainly sounds more fun than “Conquer laundry pile,” but if the latter will leave you feeling much better about the day, than sometimes taking care of business is the right choice.

    You’ve all so inspired to get into my day with a fresh, grounded perspective. Thank you for that!6 years ago

  • Sara Rose: As you and I both know, I often run my day like I’m an insane chicken, doing about 60 things at once. This led to that burnout that sent me into hiding a few moths ago. I’ve been trying to tread back into my life in a simpler way, when I vacuum, VACUUM, not vacuum while I dust and text at the same time. While I cook, stop flipping through magazines and reading emails too. I know I’ve got this insane, busy life, but to be honest? I was driving myself crazy- falling into bed near tears every night from exhaustion, yelling at everybody, and never enjoying anything.

    Life has picked up pace lately because of the holidays. But I still try to keep my life to it’s very simple routine and set my mind to “These are the 2-3 things that WILL get accomplished today.” and if one falls off the list, instead of driving myself berzerk by staying up until 4 to get it done, well, I just do it tomorrow.

    We can have a lot, yes. Have it all? Well, having it all DOES come with narrowing what your priorities of ‘all’ means. Because, last night, my daughter was feeling lonely and needing her mama. Instead of brushing that off, I brushed off folding laundry because it was clearly able to wait until today, and we cuddled in bed, read stories, and talked. I think we both felt a lot better.

    I’ve always said I want a simpl, unharried life but I find myself frantic to do that opposite and I think it’s being afraid, mostly. It seems that if we’re not frantically, on mood stabilizer level busy, in our society, something is ‘wrong’. Maybe that mood stabilizer should more often be choosing the priority of a cup of tea and a sunny walk. Just thoughts.

    thank you, my lovely. S.6 years ago

  • Liz: I needed this post so badly – thank you thank you thank you.

    I am trying to hold down a job, a relationship, many friendships, coking from scratch family relationships, a blog, a stringent exercise routine, and volunteer work, plus working on a novel. I do a lot every day but nothing ever feels done, if that makes sense. I will start to focus on choosing two.

    Last night, I went to see a movie called Miss Representation about the portrayal of women in the media (it’s a bit dismal). And one of the experts in the movie said “it’s not enough for women to be successful, intelligent, determined – they have to adhere to a certain standard of beauty to be recognized.” I know that’s not exactly what we’re talking about here – but I think the idea of “not being enough” or “not doing enough” holds true in both situations. Thankfully with women like you writing, and women like all of the above commenting, we can change the status quo.

    Thank you again.6 years ago

  • javacia: I think you may have just saved my life. Seriously. I have a chronic heath condition that flares up when I’m stressed and I have been so overwhelmed the past several months that I find myself crying in the bathroom most evenings and my doctor has had to put me on additional medication. My doctor keeps saying, “Reduce your stress,” but when I ask “How?” he just gives me a blank stare. But I think this is it: choose two. I’m going to start this tomorrow and I look forward to reporting back with results.6 years ago

  • I know what you mean about the mandate to “reduce your stress.” How the hell do I do that? Choose Two has been so helpful for me, and I really hope it is for you. Do report back, and take good care.6 years ago

  • Hilary: I’ve been popping in on your blog for over a year now and I always look forward to your musings on living a good life – and staying grounded while doing it. I’ve yet to comment, but I thought it’s time to thank you for your words of wisdom and inspiration. You rock.6 years ago

  • Rebecca: I have always admired my crazy friends who do it all, work hard and play hard, but have never wanted to be that person. That’s admirable, and I’m glad those people exist. But that’s not who I am! Some things matter to me more than others, and I tend to amble along slowly. But we sure so live in a society that assumes that busier=better, which can make it hard for those of us who embrace our Type B selves.6 years ago

  • Jennifer: This is ringing very true for me too at the moment. I come from a line of women who like to create killer to-do lists and then berate themselves when they don’t finish them. The pressure to do and be everything has grown exponentially now that I am a mom with a full-time job. Finally I said to myself “Enough, I’m not going to drive myself crazy anymore”. Now I look over my to-do list and choose 3 things to accomplish for the next day at work and maybe one for home. If I can get those done, great, but if I don’t, I no longer beat myself up for some uber-mom level of perfection. Life is too short and I’d rather be happy.6 years ago

  • Sara G.: Sarah,
    Inspired and inspiring, as always! I am currently working two jobs, raising a neurotic rescue dog who has such bad separation anxiety that she tries to jump out second story windows when I’m gone, and maintain a relationship — most days, “overwhelmed” is an optimistic description of my state of mind! The idea of choosing two priorities per day is absolutely liberating.6 years ago

  • spice: i love this post! just came to you via yes&yes, and i’ve been thinking along these same lines lately. thank you!6 years ago

  • gkgirl: this is my first time here and i found you via a number of blogs that pointed in your direction…then i got here
    and was like…aha. this is exactly what is going on in my life right now!

    i work full time and have a wedding photography business on the side…i have a 45 commute both ways and am married with a 16 year old and 12 year old…somedays it feels like all the balls are in the air but most often…i’m stepping on two of them and have completely lost a couple.

    but it helps to know that i am not alone….
    thank you for that…6 years ago

  • Adrienne: I don’t know what the big deal is about “having it all”. I think it has its roots in envy; seeing someone we believe has everything and wanting what they have. What we often fail to realize is that we’re not in their lives or homes at the end of the night, and they probably have the same struggles with missing out on this or that.

    It’s just natural. We may want everything every day, but there are only so many hours. We have to make choices and be ok with those choices.

    I use the Color Note app on my smartphone to make a list of 5 things to get done on most days. If I get more done, great. If I only get two things done, that’s ok too. Maybe instead of getting those other three things accomplished I got to talk to my mom for a couple of hours, or take a sorely needed nap, or visit my husband at work.

    Sometimes, not Getting Things Done! is worth it.6 years ago

  • Ginger: I’m a believer in we can do it all — just not ALL of it all. 🙂 I’m a big believer in time-blocking. I recently woke up in a similar panic about what I was accomplishing and the typical quarter-life crisis of if I was getting it right.

    So I decided to sit down and make a list of my priorities, and make sure, ever day, or at least every week, time was made for these things.

    Then, as you say, beg, borrow, trade, steal, or HIRE someone to do the rest.6 years ago

Add a comment