”Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.” — Greg McKeown

“Only one person can change that,” she said. Her friend was overloaded with to-do items, and letting people down wasn’t on the list, but she was exhausted.

Where were her priorities? They were quite clear — whatever anyone asked. And to her, it was clear her friend hadn’t developed a very large vocabulary because part of setting priorities and boundaries should mean learning how to judiciously use the two-letter word, “no.”

Who sets the priorities in your life? When I was a child, my parents set my priorities. In my teenage years, my parents and teachers seemed to set my priorities. When I arrived at college, I couldn’t figure out who was going to set my priorities, and I sure didn’t do a great job.

At some point, we each must take responsibility for our own priorities, and as McKeown discovered (and now teaches), the highest priority for each of us just might be our learning how to protect our ability to set priorities.

I’ve referenced McKeown before because his story is one, I understand and value. Pressured by his business partner and employer to attend a meeting with someone they deemed a priority client, McKeown had to choose between an important meeting and spending time with his newborn child. He gave in to the pressure and chose the client. But guess what? The client didn’t choose their company, and it shocked even the client that he would choose to be with them instead of his family. That changed his life — for the better.

I have been the friend in the story. When I was younger, I took on any civic duty someone passed my way. I didn’t realize back then that the reason they passed it my way was because the more experienced people had said, “No, thanks.”

Age is a gift. I have a few things I love doing — writing, taking pictures, spending time with my family, spending time with a very few close friends, reading, walking in nature, and snuggling with my dog (who is getting older). I am trying to figure out where community involvement comes in for me today. I love working with people, and I know I’ll get back out there, but I finally had to pull back and take care of myself for a minute (or a few years).

I write because I love to write, and it brings me so much joy. My husband loves playing music. I can see the difference it makes when he gets time to play. It enriches his life. Too often, my writing and his strumming have to happen after the rest of the world lets us move on from all of their needs and after we finish the “one more thing” that seemed important at the moment. What about you?

What do you love so much but aren’t doing because other people are setting your priorities? There is no time like now to remove the things that are not essential in our lives.

Just because we know this doesn’t make it easier.

What special moments have you missed because of someone else’s priorities? I think about McKeown and remember my own experience. I had given birth to our second son, and an organization I was in required I attend a weekend retreat. If you’re a young parent, you might think this was a win to get a break, but I was still nursing the baby, and being away was a hardship for all of us. The inconveniences were many. I enjoyed going but would love to have been home. Nothing about my attendance changed my life or anyone else’s for the better in the grand scheme of things.

“In the grand scheme of things,” is a great place for you to look. If you are young and have, by most standards, 50 or 60 years ahead of you, it’s important to look at the items before you and determine which mean the most to you and will be the most impactful to the community you value. If you are older and have 20 good years ahead of you, it’s even more important to measure the weight of your presence in the areas presented to you.

At every age, caring for yourself should come first. I remember people telling me to nap when the baby napped. I thought they were idiots, and I tried to do everything I could while he slept. None of those things I accomplished made much of a difference in the grand scheme of things but taking care of my sleep might have helped all of us. Self-care really does matter, and if someone says you are selfish, let them.

Because I will always fall back into my fear that caring for myself should be the very last thing on my to-do’s, I thought this brief list might be good for all of us, men and women:

1. Recognize when you are feeling “spent,” and take a break.

2. Write down the top 3-5 priorities in your life (the ones you believe matter and will bring you joy)

3. Examine those things (see above) and mark which ones you spend time taking care of joyfully.

4. Write down the things you do that don’t bring you joy and are not truly priorities for the big scheme of things.

5. Look in the mirror and say, “Someone else will do those non-priority items. You are worth taking care of.”

6. Sit down in the quiet, go for a walk in the sunshine or the rain, and remember how valuable your mental and physical health are.

I know that seems simplistic, but talking ourselves through hard moments can change everything. Hearing a voice (even our own) remind us of our worth is what most of us need when we are pulled into society’s net of imagined social value.

The question I ask myself often is, “If I died tomorrow, would doing _____ make a difference?” If it involves my mother, my children, my husband, a good friend or getting my thoughts on paper, the answer is a resounding yes. Everything else? I have no delusions — I can be replaced in most places, and with that I know to be more selfish with my time and my energy.

I want the same thing for you! Let’s never forget the priority of prioritizing our own self-care.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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