I've always been a driven person, setting lofty goals and reaching for the stars. It seems I could never stay still or focus on one thing only. How could I when there are so many possibilities to explore? If Leonardo da Vinci could paint, sculpt, construct architecture, make new inventions and study science at the same time, why can't I let myself be pulled in different directions? There is only one life, and I was always in a hurry to live it, wanting to achieve more and to get there faster. But eventually, I found myself overwhelmed and dissatisfied with the results.
Turns out, all I needed was a little shift in perspective.
Does this sound familiar? Then here is the question: How do we type-A people (who can't seem to stop and take a breather while climbing our next mountain) find fulfillment and peace in life? And what the heck does it really mean to be successful? Are we chasing after the wrong thing? Too many things? Running too fast?
Let's answer this together.
REDEFINING WHAT'S IMPORTANT
Looking back, I am not even sure how I managed to combine some things. I remember calling from the hospital room after giving birth to remind parents of pre-teens I was pastoring about an event we organized. While in nursing school, I had to lock myself in the bathroom to do experiments for my chemistry class so that my toddler and preschooler won't stick their fingers into it. It seems I was able to manage a lot, but achieving balance was always an issue. Once I forgot about my best friend's wedding because I was scraping popcorn ceilings and patching holes all weekend in the house we bought to flip as part of our real estate venture. That made me feel guilty and frustrated.
Turns out I was never multitasking but sacrificing one thing for another.
Well, if you think I've learned my lesson about being too busy, guess what. While writing this blog, I just managed to burn some eggs because I was making myself breakfast at the same time. So, this post is for me too. You just happened to stop by because you can relate to my dilemma.
I don't know about you, but I've realized that when I am pulled in different directions, quality and satisfaction go down. Busyness also makes it hard to enjoy things or to fully immerse yourself into something. Whether you like it or not, humans can only fully focus on one thing at a time while everything else takes a backseat. So, you can't really count it as family time if you're answering business e-mails on your phone while playing Jenga. You have to decide what's more important at the moment.
For goal-oriented people like us, it's mostly relationships and self-care that suffer from neglect. We ignore our loved ones until they complain, and we push ourselves to burnout until our bodies can't take the abuse anymore. Who cares about rest, food, and other earthly things, when the sky is the limit?
That's why people like our infamous Leonardo slept for only 2 hours a day by taking 20-minute naps every few hours. And, of course, he had no time to start a family. But the man achieved an enormous amount of work and left a legacy to last centuries by utilizing his gifts to the max. Was he successful? He was certainly famous even during his lifetime, made a living with his art, and passed on his skills to multiple students.
Was he satisfied with his life? I think so if he wrote: "As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death." (although, we can argue the sleep portion of it). But I bet Leo made a conscious choice of what a 'life well spent' meant for him, and looks like he had to leave some things behind in order to achieve it.
I guess the question is, what's essential for you and what are you willing to give up? Forget about doing it all. Yes, it is hard sometimes. I haven't painted for months because I am trying to finish a novel. And I am not able to finish that novel as fast as I want to because my kids and my husband need me to come out of the writing cave once in a while to spend time together.
And here is what I discovered: when I let go of everything else and let myself embrace what's right in front of me at the moment, whether it's an activity or a person, I feel happier. Life is about doing one thing at a time (without even thinking of another) and doing it well.
The wise guy Solomon said: "For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven." What activity is the most important for you right now? Let everything else wait. Is it a child who wants to talk? Let the dishes sit in the sink a little longer. Don't miss the opportunity of the moment. It might never come again.
There is a lot of great information out there about setting priorities and staying focused on what's important. My favorites books are The ONE Thing and The Miracle Morning. What helps me is:
Scheduling things that won't get done unless they have their own time slot
Achieving better focus and results by utilizing the right time of the day for certain tasks
Not letting distractions eat up my progress (hard one... hide my phone, please!)
Working in chunks of time or giving a whole day or a season to something
Setting aside some things that are still important but not a priority at the moment
Enjoying my self-care time or time with others 100% without trying to do anything "useful"
The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities. ~Stephen Covey
So, let me ask you: Have you ever found yourself feeling dissatisfied with what you've achieved? Pressed for time? Distressed about accomplishing everything you've set out to do? Disillusioned? Tired? Guilty of neglecting something important? Fill in the blank.
I think people who want to achieve things in life, usually set certain expectations for themselves. A few outcomes can take away from feeling like you've accomplished something meaningful:
You reach the goal, but don't stop to celebrate and enjoy it, pushing yourself to the next one.
You reach the goal and find that it's not what you were looking for, denying the experience.
You don't reach the goal and beat yourself up for it, forgetting the value of the journey itself.
I happen to have a husband who never regrets any of his past choices or looks back to wish he did something different in life. He doesn't let past mistakes plunge him into a downward spiral. Instead, he readjusts his course and moves forward, investing himself fully into a present moment. Sometimes his ability to forget the past drives me nuts, especially when I want to rehash a movie we just watched because it is still swirling in my mind. "What movie?" he says. The man had already moved on!
I am just the opposite. When something doesn't go my way, I do a few things: I try to bulldoze through it and, when this still doesn't work, get upset, feeling like a failure. Then I end up wishing I did something different in the first place. For motivated people, it's hard to give up.
In the past, changed plans could ruin the whole trip for me. The expectations I unknowingly placed on others put a strain on my relationships. And the pressure I exerted on myself, led to general dissatisfaction. I would just keep pushing.
Over the years, I've learned that peace and happiness come through flexibility: taking life as it comes and accepting people for who they are - imperfect. When things change, sometimes it's best to adjust and go with the flow. Who knows, maybe it was a better route in the first place.
Moreover, I've realized that I need to go easier on myself at times and to take a break without feeling like I'm wasting time. Don't compare your progress to anyone else's. Go at your own pace. Otherwise, you'll end up taking on more than you can handle or maybe don't need to handle at all. Everyone has different circumstances.
Now and again, when I find myself a slave to obligations of my own making and a prisoner of my self-imposed deadlines, I scrape it all and call a timeout. "Busy" doesn't equate to "productive". I let the pressure of performance slip and go back to the drawing board. What am I trying to achieve? Why? Is it even worth my time and effort? Should I be taking a break or doing something else more important instead?
"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." ~Maya Angelou
When we become too attached to something, we close our minds to potentially better possibilities. When we push ourselves too hard, we don't take time to enjoy the process and learn. My suggestion: get off the auto-pilot and re-evaluate the course once in a while. If life throws you a roadblock on the way to your goals, use it as an opportunity to relax and take care of things that have been put off for too long (usually self-care). A new door might open up in the meantime, and you'll keep the peace.
I think it's necessary to have a purpose and a few goals to work toward. A forward movement makes our existence meaningful and allows us to progress. Even as kids, we dream of making a difference and leaving a mark.
This might look different for all of us and it adjusts as we go through life. But the initial course we undertake in life doesn't always lead to satisfaction, contentment, and happiness. That's why some people, who might look successful on the outside, end up regretting the way they spent their time. What they've chased after was not what they truly wanted.
Let's avoid that mistake and on our run to the finish line stop to reevaluate things.
A simple definition of success is to achieve what you've #1 desired, #2 planned, and #3 attempted. The first step in this sequence is "desire". During youth, most often than not, we don't really know what we want. This is discovered while taking a plunge into things that might be interesting or that appeal to our natural talents. We try, stumble around, then keep what we liked the most or what was the most convenient at the moment. Our crazy dreams might end up being set aside when reality hits. But over the years people change professions or lifestyles to try something new or give their old aspirations another chance.
How does a successful life look like for you? Is it having enough material wealth to do things you've always wanted like travel? Is it about turning ideas into a well-run business that makes a difference for many? Is it being surrounded by a loving family and lots of friends? Or maybe it's doing something that no one else has done before? Making a new discovery? Take time to write it down right now. What is it that you truly want to be able to accomplish at the end of your journey?
Now, let's break it down a little bit. How does a successful year look like? A month? A week? A day? Maybe it's sticking to healthy eating habits or spending more time with family or finally taking that art class you've always wanted. Write these things down too. Take time to dream a little and to celebrate what you've already achieved so far.
If I may say, at the end of it all, success is not what you have done but who you've become.
My grandfather was in a coma for several months. Before he lost consciousness, he told my mom that he felt like he was going to die. And technically he did. When he woke up, getting a second chance in life, his whole perspective on things shifted. There was no more striving. He was just enjoying every moment. I remember his saying: "All that matters is to love people and be at peace with everyone."
Jesus said: "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?" Take care of your heart first, and everything else will fall into place.
Usually, big achievements come from little everyday things we do faithfully and are the results of many small steps. But when we reach our goals while keeping the balance, taking care of ourselves and the relationships around us, keeping the inner peace by adjusting things and taking a break when needed, then we can experience a true fulfillment of the race well run. That's what I wish for you and me.
"Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness." ~Napoleon Hill