Around here, it seems like the most common answer to the question of “how are you?” is “Busy!” followed by a laundry list of the many, many things the person is doing. It can involve professional responsibilities, social engagements, volunteer commitments, athletic involvement and hobbies, but it seems like most of us have schedules that are really, really full to the brim.

Often, these commitments sound fulfilling, interesting, and even fun, and yet it doesn’t seem to make people happy.  All this activity seems to make people feel tired, overstressed, and like they are in constant danger of falling off the back of the treadmill of life.

In addition, it makes it really hard for people to make room for positive changes they’d like to add to their lives. Maybe they’d like to have more time for friendships, or make time to meditate, or exercise more. In addition, it can often get in the way of deepening relationships, like working through conflictual issues with a partner, or spending more time (not just quality time, but quantity too) with their children. 

Those are all very real concerns, but I would even add one more issue that happens when we are very busy. It is very difficult to spend time getting to know ourselves.  Being busy can distract us from our feelings and reactions to how our life is developing.

My sister, who is one of the smartest and busiest people I know, tells me that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and we all choose how we want to spend it.” That’s true, and while it sounds simple, it’s actually a very complex and rich concept.  We each have 24 hours in a day, and the way we choose to spend it should reflect our priorities.

Unfortunately, if we really sit down and take a hard look at how we spend our days, we might find out that it doesn’t really reflect current priorities. Often, our time is spent doing things that other people want us to do, or what we think a good person would do, or what feels most urgent, but not necessarily what we would actually choose, if we were trying to build a life from scratch.

I’m not advocating that you should turn your life upside down in order to create your own personal pleasure party, far from it. I understand that there are real life commitments that are serious and real–if you need to work a job you hate in order to pay necessary bills, then that would likely reflect your priorities (making sure necessities are covered).

But many people, if they really stopped and looked at how they spend each day, would be disappointed to see how different it is from what their priorities are.  How much time is spent doing things you don’t like? How much time is frittered away doing things to distract yourself or recover from the hardship of feeling stressed or burdened?

I often use the tool of asking someone “if you knew you had five years left to live, would you change anything?” With five years left, you will likely continue to want to live a productive life (such as employment, creative expression, and/or volunteerism), but also will understand that personal meaning and relationships cannot be postponed.  

In my work, I often work with people who received an unexpected and devastating medical change. When their health status changes (such as dementia, cancer, spinal cord injuries), one of the most challenging and important tasks is to reassess priorities.  Most people find that they had been spending time on things that didn’t matter to them (people they didn’t care for, unrewarding jobs, commitments that were not meaningful), and readjusted their time to reflect it.

But for those people who do not have a big moment force a shift in priorities, it’s easy to let time pass without examining how you spend your time. I am inviting you to take an opportunity to reflect. You can do this in a focused way, by spending a week documenting the usage of your time, or you can do this in a more qualitative way, just noticing how much time you’re spending doing things, and wondering to yourself if you wish you could make changes.  What’s missing? What is there too much of?

You don’t have to make any changes at all. Just noticing is really important.  But you will probably want to change something, and if you do, I advise to make just one small change.  See how it feels to carve out ten minutes a day to meditate, or to not check email after dinner. Do you like it? Does it make you anxious? Was there a priority or meaning that you hadn’t seen before? You might be surprised by how attached we can be to familiar patterns and habits. So be gentle, and try just one small change.  Get used to it, modify it as needed, and once that feels like a stable part of your life, consider making another small change.

It may seem slow, and you may feel impatient–after all you’ve just noticed that your life doesn’t reflect your priorities!  You might want to change everything all at once. Try to take your time with this–you’re actually hypothesizing about who you are and what you want, and then checking out whether your ideas were correct or if they need modifications.

As you keep shifting and adjusting your prioritization, you will keep shifting how you spend your time. Hopefully, if you’re paying attention to how you feel in response to these shifts, you will begin to experience your life as more and more fulfilling.  You may still answer the question of “how are you?” with “busy,” if being busy feels meaningful to you, but it is my hope that you will also say “happy” or “fulfilled” too.

Let me know if you begin to experiment with exploring your priorities and how you spend your time and energy. I’d love to hear what you find out about yourself.