There’s an old theater class exercise that I’ve taken to playing in my head to help me prioritize when I feel like I’m approaching my limit these days.
In it, you take a sentence and emphasize each word in it differently to discover all the possible meanings of the line. Take, for example, the line, “I only want to speak with Dwayne.” If you emphasize the “I” it sounds like it’s just you that wants to speak with Dwayne, compared to the hoards of adoring fans who want to rip his clothes off. If instead, you emphasize the word, “Speak,” you’re drawing attention to the idea that maybe you actually do have something more in mind for Dwayne than having a good conversation.
Because I’m a mom, I have to figure out what’s really important all day long, so the line I use to help myself prioritize is: Do I have to do this now?
Below are all the different meanings that come to my mind as I consider this line when I attempt to prioritize my life, and why this might be a helpful exercise for you too.
1. Do I have to do this now?
Confession: I sometimes do things that I really don’t need to do without even realizing it. For example, last month I thought I had a clog in my shower. So, after assembling a screwdriver and a coat hanger, I tried to break up what I was sure was a clump of hair. Oddly, my coat hanger kept hitting something hard. Five minutes later- it took me FIVE MINUTES, y’all- I realized I’d left the stopper up in the tub. The clog was not a clog, instead, the “clog” was my own stupidity in not first checking the obvious issues before jumping in to try to fix something that wasn’t broken.
I’m guessing (hoping?) I’m not the only one who leaps into situations with both feet without thinking, ready to do and solve whatever needs doing and solving. Solve all the things! After working much harder than I needed to to solve a problem that wasn’t actually a problem, I realized this is not just a plumbing issue for me. I regularly, in the heat of the moment, prioritize an action without thinking. This is dumb.
My line game should help me. These days, I’m trying to ask, “Do I actually need to do something or do I need more time to think?” Do I need to act, or is this something that I can just observe? If taking a moment to practice a little mindful noticing can save me from hours of extra work (or future embarrassing confessions!) then I need to slow down on the doing and increase the thinking about doing first.
2. Do I have to do this now?
This is my favorite part of this line. Seriously, try it the next time you’re making dinner and the dishwasher needs to be emptied. I am the multi-tasking queen/loser who is always trying to do everything. Asking myself if I have to be the one to do something though has been a life-changer.
The truth is, your KIDS can do so much more than you let them do (age appropriate chore chart to the rescue!) Sure, it’s often easier to just do a chore yourself. It’s faster and it’s done the way you like it; teaching your kid to do a chore takes time and it’s often annoying. BUT, stay with me now, if you don’t take the time to teach them, you’ll always be the one doing the chores and your kids will be the worse for it.
We’ve eased into this by having our kids start doing chores beside us. Together we fold laundry, which lets me teach them how to line up sleeves on a shirt when folding and how to tuck socks together. In the kitchen, I chop salads while the girls put away the clean silverware or stack plates up for me to put in the cabinet when they can’t reach a shelf. My eldest now can fold a basket of clothes on her own while my youngest is totally capable of folding and putting away the cloth napkins in a drawer.
When I’m at my most frazzled at the end of the day, taking just a moment to ask if I have to be the one to do something can make the difference between me turning into a screaming banshee or our family enjoying a pleasant meal together.
Why not teach them to prioritize too? Do you need to change your outfit for the 50th time today, or do you need to empty out your stinky lunch box so we can get those dishes washed? Maybe I’d be better at setting priorities in my middle age if I’d had a little more practice when I was younger?
3. Do I have to do this now?
Which leads me to my next point. We all have things we have to do, things we think we should do (but maybe don’t actually accomplish), and things we want to do. Becoming an adult, I think, is in large part learning how to distinguish amongst these three categories and how to manage these competing demands. Asking my question with the emphasis on “have to” helps me think about what the actual need is in each instance,
Some of our angst comes when we get the three things mixed up. I think I should take a shower today, I have to pay the water bill, and I want to install a rain barrel someday. It’s easy for me to get hung up on the need to conserve water which then leads to me thinking I really need to install a rain barrel. It’s equally easy for me, after a morning of chores and refereeing between sisters on a weekend morning, to get anxious that I haven’t showered yet (just me?) Taking a breath and reminding myself to prioritize and that the real chore of the day is paying the water bill, helps me let some of the other things go (plus science says we don’t have to bathe as much as we think we do!) at least for the day. I will need to shower soon. I do need to consider water conservation. But thinking about my list of priorities in terms of have tos versus want tos and should dos makes a difference in my stress levels.
4. Do I have to do this now?
The other day, a neighbor invited the girls to a party after school. They met me at the door excited and begging to join the neighborhood celebration, and I quickly agreed though it had not been on my after school to-do list. When we got to the party, our host quickly served us a sweet treat and began introducing me to the other moms in attendance. It was completely lovely, and I know I would have enjoyed spending the next hour getting to know them.
The problem at the back of my mind was the fact that we did not have any food in our refrigerator, and I would need to feed folks dinner and breakfast all too soon. Looking around, I realized I would not be able to enjoy doing this because I had responsibilities looming over me. This was not what I needed to be doing, so with my host’s blessing, I left the girls happily playing and supervised while I ran off to the grocery store.
5. Do I have to do this now?
The ultimate tool in figuring out my priorities is the last word: now. With all the competing demands on my attention and time, figuring out my “now” is huge. “Now” helps me move things to the top of the list, down the list, and sometimes off the list entirely.
One of my favorite things about having kids is how they force you, time after time, into NOW.
Sure, it’s exhausting and exasperating to constantly be putting things aside to respond to their need in the moment: the baby needs to nursed now, the toddler has a scraped knee, their ball rolled into the street. We don’t always have the luxury of deciding for ourselves whether or not something has to be done now. At the same time, we can’t spend a lot of time worrying about something someone said to us a week ago, or what we’re going to be doing with our career in ten years time.
But as my kids have gotten older, I’m able to tell them things like, “Your hunger is not an emergency. You can wait ten minutes for dinner.” Or, “Yes, I know you want me to get down that shirt for you from the closet, but I can’t do that now because I’m working.” We’re all the time negotiating what they can do now or what I can do with them or for them in this moment. Having this line helps me to figure this out with them; it helps me balance their need for instant gratification against my own needs as a person, not just as their mother.
“Do I have to do this now?” does not actually make my life less chaotic. It does not stop the flow of paperwork from school that has to be read and responded to. It doesn’t fix us supper. It doesn’t balance or budget or respond to an email from my boss for me. What it does do, in all its iterations, is help me to think about how best to manage the chaos of our busy lives. It’s deceptively simple, but as a means of prioritizing the work of my life, it’s my new favorite line.