Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what truly matters. My mom’s diagnosis, illness, and death have caused me to stop, question, and look more deeply at the things and people in my life that are important. Through the pain and challenge of this experience, I’ve also been grateful for the perspective and awareness it has opened up.
What I’ve noticed is that, sadly, I don’t focus on what and who truly matters to me as much as I’d like. I tend to get distracted by fears, ego-obsessions, drama (in my own life and in the world), ambitions, and all sorts of survival instincts and emotional reactions. While I understand and have empathy for the fact that this is all part of being human, I also recognize that when I get distracted like this, I’m not able to fully engage in the most important activities, relationships, and situations in my life. Maybe you can relate?
Why do we get so distracted in our lives? Why does it sometimes take illness, crisis, injury, tragedy, or even death to wake us up and get our attention?
First of all, I think we clutter up our lives with too much “stuff.” We’re too busy, over-committed, and information obsessed. Our to-do lists are too long and we run around trying to “keep up” or be “important,” and in the process stress ourselves out to no end. Even though many of us, myself included, often complain (out loud or just in our heads) that we can’t do anything about this – based on the nature of life today, technology and communication devices, and/or the responsibilities of our lives, families, and jobs – most of us have more of a say over our schedules, how much we engage in electronic communication, and the amount of “stuff” we clutter into our lives. Much of this distracts us from what’s most important.
Second of all, it actually can be scary to focus on what truly matters. Some of the most important people, activities, and aspects of our lives are things that may seem “unimportant” to those around us. These things may or may not have anything to do with our careers, taking care of our families, and may not even be things that other people like, understand, or agree with. Even if they are, sadly, it’s often easier to just watch TV, disengage, and merely react to what’s going on around us than it is to engage in the things we value most.
Finally, we may not know what’s most important to us or at least have some internal conflict about what “should” be. Whether it’s our lack of clarity or it’s this phenomenon of “should-ing” all over ourselves (or maybe a bit of both), focusing on what truly matters to us can be more tricky than it seems on the surface. With so many conflicting beliefs, ideas, and agendas (within us and around us), it’s not always easy to know with certainty what matters most to us. And, even if we do, it can take a good deal courage, commitment, and perspective to live our life in alignment with this on a regular basis.
While these and other “reasons” make sense, not focusing on what matters most to us has a real (and often negative) impact on our life, our work, and everyone around us. We end up living our life in a way that is out of integrity with who we really are, which causes stress, dissatisfaction, and missed opportunities and experiences.
What if we did focus on what truly matters in our life all the time – not simply because we experience a wakeup call, crisis, or major life change – but because we choose to in a pro-active way? What would your life look like if you let go of some of your biggest distractions, the often meaningless worries and stresses that take your attention, and actually put more focus on the people and things that are most important to you?
Here’s an exercise you can do now (and any time in the future) to both take inventory of where you are in this process and also to get you more in alignment with what truly matters.
1) Make a list of the most important aspects of your life. You can either write this list down on a piece of paper or in your journal (ideal) or simply make a mental list. These “aspects” will vary depending on your life, interests, priorities, etc. For most people, however, they tend to be things like family, personal/spiritual growth, health, career success/fulfillment, making a difference in the world, fun, money, friends/community, travel, adventure, creativity, home, and more. While you don’t need to rank them necessarily, thinking of these things with some priority can be helpful.
2) Make a list of the things you spend most of your time doing and thinking about. Take inventory of your day today (as well as the past few days, weeks, and months) and make a list (in writing or in your head) of where you spend your time and attention. Tell the truth, even if you aren’t proud of some of the activities or thoughts that get a lot of your focus. With this list it’s important to rank them in some way – so that you’re clear about which activities, thoughts, relationships, and more get your attention specifically, and how much you devote to each of them.
3) Compare the two lists and see how you can get them even more aligned. As you compare these two lists, if you’re anything like me – you may notice that they’re quite different. Often what we say is most important to us isn’t the same as where we devote much of our time, energy, and thought. Without judging yourself, tell the truth about where there are differences in these two lists and spend some time inquiring into why this is the case. And, as you think about this, ask yourself how you can create more alignment with these two lists. In other words, be more conscious and do whatever you can to focus more on what truly matters to you!