What’s the most important thing?
Keep your eyes on the prize.
Have you heard this saying?
The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.
What are the most important things to you? In your life as a whole? During a particular interaction with someone? Right this minute?
The most important things often get pushed to the sidelines. Urgent crowds out important. Modern life is full of distracting clamor, from text messages and emails to window displays in the mall. Other people tug at you with their priorities – which may not be your own. And it can feel scary to admit what really matters to you, tell others, and go after it for real: the fearful voices whisper in the back of the mind: What if you fail?
But if you don’t make a sanctuary for what is important, it will get overrun by the bermuda grass of B and C priorities.
Know your purpose in life. Write it down in one word, phrase, or sentence. Really. The first time someone suggested I do this, I thought they were a little nuts. But then I opened up to a kind of knowing of what matters most to me, and wrote it down. It’s OK if it changes, or if you don’t get the words just right at first. You can revise it later. Put it in positive terms and in the present tense; for example, “I am loving” is better than “I will stop getting so angry with people.” Say it out loud and see how it feels. Find words you connect with.
Keep your purpose close to your heart; it may feel sacred. If you speak of it, do so with self-respect, not self-doubt. And then every day, as soon as you remember, recommit to your life’s purpose: rename it to yourself and give yourself over to it again.
Clarify your priorities. Identify the key aims of your life these days in a word or phrase, such as: Health. Friendship. Finances. Learning new things. Career. Marriage. Spirituality. Having fun. Parenting. Creative expression. Exploring life. Service. Maybe break up one aim into two or three; for example, “finances” could become “breaking even,” “saving for retirement,” and “becoming affluent, even wealthy.”
Then do a little exercise as an experiment: rank these aims in order of importance, with no ties allowed. If you could attain only one aim, which would it be? That’s your highest priority. Then take that one off the list, look at the aims that are left, and ask the question again: If I could attain only one of these remaining aims, which one would it be? Then repeat the process until you’re finished. Remember your purpose in life. As you go along, you may want to revise the wording of the aims, or divide one aim into two or three. When you’re done, write a clean list of aims in priority order; if it feels right, keep it where you can see it each day, maybe your eyes alone. Routinely reflect on your true priorities; feel their weight; let your top priorities draw you in their direction.
Put the big rocks in the bucket first. Look at the priorities you just created, and then ask yourself: Am I giving my time, attention, and energy in proportion to these priorities? And sit with the answer for awhile. Don’t feel you need to change your life right away. There are usually some conflicts between your priorities and your actions. Live with that tension; don’t push it away. Keep letting your true priorities speak to you. What do they say?
It’s normal to be committed to big chunks of time doing things that are necessary but not high priorities per se, such as commuting or doing housework. Consider how you could weave one or more top priorities into these relatively low priority periods. For example, listen to an inspiring talk while you’re on the bus, or pay mindful attention to the breath while doing dishes.
Also see what realistic changes you can gradually make in your time, in the people you see, in what you give your attention, in how you spend your money. Build your priorities into your daily schedule and monthly budget. For example, start your day with a time of reflection, meditation, uplifting reading, yoga, art, or exercise. Or when you pay the bills, write the first check to your own savings account, even if it’s only for a single dollar.
Stay focused on your priorities in important interactions. Lots of interactions kind of bounce around, and that’s OK. But sometimes there’s an important stake on the table, like identifying a key deliverable at work, or saying what you really feel to your partner, or pinning down a homework plan for your child. In these cases, it’s common for the conversation to go off on tangents, get hijacked emotionally, or fall into a kitchen sink full of related issues – but then the main point doesn’t get resolved. Instead, keep reminding yourself of the result you’d like out of the interaction. It doesn’t have to be the whole magilla: sometimes it’s best to focus on something concrete and manageable that’s attainable. Don’t take the “bait” of inflammatory or distracting statements by others; keep coming back to the main point; you can deal with those other issues later – if ever. Obviously, be open to discovering that there is something even more important to talk about than what you first thought. But always be clear what your priorities are, even if they change.
Take care of yourself. This is definitely an important thing – perhaps the most fundamental of all. As they say on an airplane, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” Or as the Buddha put it a long time ago: “If one going down into a river, swollen and swiftly flowing, is carried away by the current – how can one help others across?”
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 22 languages) and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 9 languages). Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.
An authority on self-directed neuroplasticity, Dr. Hanson’s work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, FoxBusiness, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and his weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has over 40,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. Dr. Hanson is a trustee of Saybrook University and served on the board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years.