The Three Most Important Things

A few years ago, freshly divorced and trying to make a living as freelance writer, I found myself overwhelmed by the demands of my new life. My daughter, who has multiple disabilities, was then three years old and unable to be in childcare – none of the programs would take her. An erratic babysitter I couldn’t often afford was all I had when I needed a few hours’ break. All I ever did, it seemed, was take care of my daughter all day, then work all night, then start the cycle over again the next morning.

I didn’t have many resources – if I’d had resources I wouldn’t have been so stressed! So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to change things. Then I remembered a quote from a famous writer who once said that when she was a single mother raising her daughters and feeling overwhelmed, she sat down and made a list of all the things she had to do, from paying the phone bill to raising her daughters to be happy, courageous adults. Then she made a list of the three most important things in her life and that’s what she spent her time doing. The rest could wait.

So I followed suit. I made a list of the three most important things in my life. I came up with 1. my friends/family; 2. my writing; and 3. my personal emotional/spiritual well-being. Within each category, I devised a list of what was worth doing and what wasn’t. So for example under “family/friends,” spending time with my daughter was worth doing; spending time with the annoying friend who always made me feel bad was not. Within “writing,” work that paid well and was mostly trouble-free was worth doing. Work that touched my soul was worth doing. Work that didn’t pay well and didn’t touch my soul wasn’t worth doing. Within “personal emotional/spiritual well-being,” learning Zen concepts and meditating was important; attending time-intensive martial arts tournaments . . . not so much.

As simple as that, my life was back on track. Every time I sat down to a task, it had to pass the “Three Most Important Things” test. If it wasn’t one of the three most important things, then it didn’t get done. I just crossed it off. The friends who weren’t really friends faded away. The uninteresting, poorly paying work found other homes. Unrewarding volunteer work got tossed. I started being picky about how I spent my time. If I could maintain a relationship with a once-a-month phone call, then that’s what I did, and I didn’t kick myself for not being able to do more. When organizations I cared about asked for my help, I set clear limits – one fundraiser per year, for example. If that wasn’t good enough, well, then they could just cross me off their list of volunteers entirely.

I realized that I was finally valuing myself and my time and learning to say no. Having the list backed up the “no.” It gave me focus and purpose. It made me stronger. It also meant I got more sleep.

It’s still easy for me to fall into the old patterns. But now I remember to look at what I’m doing and if it isn’t on the “Three Most Important Things” list I reconsider. I knew I was finally winning my battle against living other people’s agendas when I started answering requests for my time and energy with, “I’m sorry, that’s not a priority for me right now. Best wishes, though!”

The last time I said it, I hung up the phone and realized my daughter had been listening to the whole conversation. And it felt good to know that I was teaching her what had taken me so long to learn: the only way to truly live the life you want is to do what matters to you and forget the rest.