Priorities

What is our time worth and what are our priorities with our time? Author Colin Wright encourages us to think about how we are using time and where we are focusing our time in his book, Come Back Frayed. The book is about Wright’s time living in the Philippines, and is very much an exploration of how he strives to live his life, the differences he has experienced across cultures through his travels, and the differences he has experienced in his reactions within various cultures. Wright strives for flexibility and greater freedom in his life, and his awareness helps him to be particularly perceptive of times when we are not in alignment with what we claim is important. In his book he discusses how our actions are what bring our priorities into the real world and he writes, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.”

 

I read Wright’s book a while back, and I had forgotten about this quote. When I look back on it now, I feel that I am forced to look into my own life and actions to determine if I am putting the right things in the right place. Am I choosing to take part in activities that I claim are important to me? Am I spending my time in a way that aligns with what I tell people is the most important? Are there activities that are sapping time from my day without me realizing that they are not aligned with the growth and future I desire?

 

The self reflection encouraged by Wright reminds me of a podcast I recently listened to. Design Matters host Debbie Millman interviewed Tim Ferris for her podcast, and Ferris said, “Any time I take off in a plane, I ask myself, ‘Would I be happy with what I’ve been doing for the last 24 hours?’” By reflecting on his last 24 hours and building in a set time for reflection Ferris is evaluating his life to see if his actions have aligned with what he finds important. Thinking about our last 24 hours and whether or not we are proud of that time is a great way to consider whether or not our priorities are focused where they need to be.

 

Wright’s quote also reminds me of a metaphor I have been using and recently re-evaluating regarding time. On 5/27/15 I first wrote about time and priorities in the sense of packing a suitcase. Julie Sheranosher on an episode of the Beyond the To-Do List podcast shared the idea that we have limited time in our lives, as we have limited space when packing a suitcase, and need to select the most crucial things to pack first. Making sure our priorities are set properly requires reflection on what is important in our lives, and consideration of how we can fit those things in our suitcase of life. We must decide what we bring with us and what we leave out when the suitcase is full. Recently, I have been hoping to update this model by thinking of our time and actions as a certain area illuminated by light. What we can focus on and put into action is in the illuminated area, and what is beyond our focus and attention is left in the shadows. Our focus and our actions reveal what our priorities are, while our self talk and stories to others outline what we think our priorities are. Only through awareness and reflection of our actions and decisions can we evaluate whether our talk and actions are aligned.

Put on Autopilot

“Many of our daily habits are put on autopilot, which conserves valuable thought-fueling energy that needn’t be wasted on familiar movements, experiences, and interactions.” Author Colin Wright writes in his book Come Back Frayed. Wright uses this quote to explain the way we build routines in our lives and the danger that automating our actions can have when we forget to experience and focus on the present moment. The quote above introduces the idea of autopilot, giving us a perspective of autopilot’s usefulness in terms of conserving energy and decision making power, but Wright continues to explain what can go wrong when we let too much of our lives be controlled without our conscious thought:

 

“As a result of this routine-building predisposition, we barely notice the drive to work, and sometimes find ourselves looking up from the steering wheel, already at the office parking lot and unable to recall the specifics of how we got there. … This automation goes far beyond commuting. We listen to the same, familiar music, have the same conversations with well-known, comfortable friends, loop through the same meal-time, bed time, and after-work habits that we’ve been repeating for months, years, perhaps decades. It’s no surprise that time compresses under these circumstances. … At some point it’s not the parking lot that we notice when we look up from the steering wheel, but life. We’re here, experiencing this point in time, but unsure of how we got here. Where did all those years go? Why doesn’t anything from the time between now and back then stand out?”

 

The danger of autopilot is that we put off being an active participant in our lives, and as a result, we fail to build a real history for ourselves. The problem that Wright explains is not with our routines and habits, but it is with our failure to be mindful and present in familiar moments. The more we can be present in even the simplest actions, the more we can become aware of the world around us and engage in a meaningful way to shape the direction of our life. Time will likely still go by too fast and some points will feel compressed, but by being more present in our actions we open new opportunities for ourselves to connect with others, grow, learn, and produce something meaningful with our time.

 

Wright travels frequently and actively believes in changing his surroundings by changing his physical location on the planet. This keeps his habits and routines constantly in flux, and forces him to be aware of his thoughts, actions, and decisions. It is hard to build a similar lifestyle, but we can build habits in our lives that put us in new positions and unfamiliar surroundings, rather than just building habits that replicate the same experience day after day. Creating situations that are not routine forces our brain to be active and present to process the world around us, and these moments may be the defining points in life that help us understand and delineate our growth through time.

Avoiding Extremes

Colin Wright is an author, podcast host, and in to some degree full time traveler writing about his experiences and the ways in which he has come to see the world through stoic principles of self-awareness and mindful consideration. In his recent book, Come Back Frayed, Wright details his experiences living in the Philippines and explains ways in which his lifestyle contribute to his being able to not just survive, but thrive in very different environments and places. One of Wright’s traits lending to a successful lifestyle of travel is his ability to avoid extremes in terms of thought, behavior, and desires. Regarding extremes he writes,

 

“Extremes are insidious because they’re incredibly valuable until they’re not. At some point on the usefulness curve, they transition, hyde-like, to harmful. Even water is deadly if you drink too much of it.
Avoiding extremes has become an integral part of my lifestyle, because I find that walking up to that line, toeing it, and then stepping back to stand on healthier, more stable ground is what allows me to work and live and enjoy the world around me without suffering the consequences of burnout, sleep-deprivation, ill-health, and fanaticism.”

 

I enjoy this passage because Wright explains the importance of remaining even and level in our actions. It is easy, tempting, and often encouraged to push toward an extreme in whatever we are doing with our lives, but in the long run the consequences of living on the extremes can be disastrous. Pursuing diets without flexibility, driving toward completing incredible amounts of work, and even participating in non-stop leisure can lead to worse outcomes than if we had been more balanced in our approach. Focusing so highly on one area may help us find incredible success, but as we push further toward the extremes, we must out of necessity, and limitations on our time and energy, give up attention for other areas of our life. Without stopping to take notice of our focus, we will find that suddenly, our laser detail on one extreme, has allowed other areas to become problematic.

 

This is the sudden change that Wright discusses in his quote above. Extremes push us to places where the supports that allow for our behavior become weakened and unable to further support our specific efforts. Because our focus is so set in one area, it also means we are oblivious to areas we have chosen to neglect, and when problems arise, we might not know where to look to find solutions.

 

Greatness and deliberate action are things to strive for, but we should recognize what we are sacrificing to reach those goals. As we drive further toward extremes in pursuit of excellence, we will notice that we must take our focus away from other areas. Being conscious of our decisions and recognizing when we are approaching extreme points will help us find a place where we can continue to seek greatness on more stable footing.

The Obstacle is the Way

The final section that I highlighted from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a quick passage that sums up the author’s personal philosophy and views of the world. Throughout the book Holiday encourages us to persevere and to find true growth in the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties we will encounter, but helps us understand the ways in which our perspective can turn obstacles into opportunities. Throughout his book I was reminded of a painting that hung on the wall of Coach Kirk Elias’s office at the University of Nevada. Coach E is the women’s cross country coach, and during an internship with the University’s Sports Media department, I spent a lot of time in his office talking running, coaching, and the team. He had a small abstract painting with a person holding a big square object and a caption reading something along the lines of, “here is a large block of whatever is the most difficult for you to carry. Throughout life you will carry it more times than you expect, until it no longer becomes so heavy.” Holiday’s book takes that message and shows us how that heavy block becomes the thing that gives our life direction, not by crushing us, but by helping us develop greater strength.

 

Toward the end of holiday’s book he recaps his writing with the following, “see things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The obstacle is the way.”

 

It is so easy to become frustrated by events beyond our control, but changing our focus and perception can help us better approach our challenges. What keeps us up at night can become the thing that defines us by either crushing us, or by giving us a greater foundation to stand upon. Overcoming obstacles does not just put us further along our path, it creates an entirely new path for us. When we shrink from challenges or back away when we see difficulties ahead we limit our growth, but remembering that we will always face obstacles and that we can only grow by facing them nobly allows us to charge forward. Things are always difficult, indeed Abraham Lincoln described life as a trial, but enduring the challenges will help us reach a more meaningful place where we can make a difference in the world as an example for those who follow and run up against the same challenges.

New Avenues for Movement

One of the ideas in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is developing a focus on other people and things beyond ones-self and one’s immediate wants and desires. Holiday follows stoic principles to build a more purposeful and meaningful life, and one of his strategies is to think more deeply about others. He encourages present mindedness in our thoughts, but in a way that is reflective and understanding, beyond a presence that is concerned about what we have, what we want, and what others have that we do not. By applying this type of thinking to the challenges we face, Holiday give us a new vision of obstacles, the difficulties we face, and how our challenges relate to other people. He writes, “Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?”

 

This quote shows the importance of thinking beyond ourselves when we are faced with obstacles. The easy thing to do when we are stuck and unable to see potential solutions is to give up and complain about how unfair our situation is. What Holiday argues is a productive response to being stuck, is to stop thinking about ourselves and how limited our possibilities are. By shifting our focus of the problem away from our own “stuckness” and instead thinking of what we could do to help those who are in similar situations, we give ourselves new pathways forward. They may not be the pathways we originally envisioned, and they may not lead to the same destination, but they do move forward.

 

The crucial idea in Holiday’s quote is that thinking of others allows us more growth through deeper reflection. This mindset provides an opportunity for us to develop deeper connections with other human beings through the struggles we share. We likely will not find ourselves in situations that are truly unique to only us. Others have certainly been in our shoes at some point, and many more will experience situations similar to ours in the future. Thinking about what would have been helpful for ourselves, and creating ways to share our experiences, attempted solutions, and successes allows us do something meaningful at a point where none of our actions seem important.

 

This thought process gives us a new direction and new goals. we likely will have to shift our aim and pursue new actions to try to implement ideas that benefit others, but in doing so, we abandon our stuckness, and open doors for others. We experience new energy through acts that do good for others, and we create new opportunities for ourselves that we could not have predicted had we not been creative during our struggles. Holiday’s simple idea gives us an oblique approach to forward growth and a more meaningful life for ourselves and those around us.

A Better Place

One of the last chapters in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is titled, “Something Bigger Than Yourself” and Holiday starts the chapter with a quote from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul.” Holiday continues by sharing  the story of an American prisoner of war who brought unity to a POW camp and continued to serve for the men under his rank in the camp who were all enduring incredible torture and suffering.  By focusing on others, and not himself, the prisoner of war in Holiday’s story was able to better the lives of all, and to make survival an option for everyone during the most challenging point in their lives. 

The story from Holiday and the quote from Percy work together to show that we can find incredible meaning and joy in our lives when we begin to shift our focus away from ourselves and back toward others. There is no perfect balance of how much one should do for themselves and how much one should do for others, but focusing solely on yourself and seeking to only improve your life or the world for your purpose will leave you in an empty existence. Your home may be full of things, but your connections with the world around you will always be lacking.

I don’t approach the idea in a spiritual sense, but our time on earth is so short that there is always something bigger than ourselves that we can strive for. Our own happiness is meaningless in the sea of suffering and challenge around us, but we have the ability to begin to change the tides of struggle that wash against not only us, but of many of those that we encounter.

When we begin to live life thinking of what we can do to make the world a better place for those around us, we can find purpose and meaning anywhere that we are. We can recognize that the timeline of the earth and human civilization will outlast us, meaning that there will be something greater than us that goes beyond our lifetime. Anything positive that we can do now, will have a lasting impact on those around us and will hopefully outlive us. We do not have to worry about how large our good actions are, we only need to worry that we complete those actions. The small scale of positive actions should not dismay us, for we would never get started if we thought that our positivity must change everything in the world.

Discouragement and Persistance

Continuing his writing about focusing on the long term over the short term, author Ryan Holiday presents a new idea of persistence and brings a perspective to the discouragement we all feel from time to time. Holiday writes, “It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life—that’s persistence.” The power in this quote is Holiday’s acknowledgment of our feelings and reminder that it is ok to feel discouraged when we are struggling along our path. He helps us look at our emotions and take a step back to think about what they mean.

I really enjoy when author’s look at our emotional states and explain that we should not be critical of ourselves for feeling a certain way. It is normal to feel discouraged when facing obstacles, and in a very realistic manner, Holiday accepts our discouragement and provides us with inspiration to press forward. His advice is powerful because it is honest about the way we will feel when trying to reach out goals, and does not simply paint a rosy future of how nice our life will be once we surmount the obstacles in front of us. By pushing through the discomfort and inching along, we can reach our goals, but there are times where we will not feel great about our journey.

Holiday’s message is that our continued efforts, despite our desire to quit, is what true persistence is all about. Persistence is not just continued action, but it is not giving up when it does not feel as though we can be successful. When our emotions have been shot down and all we can do is crawl along toward our goal, according to Holiday, we have reached a point where persistence is all we have. By viewing persistence and discouragement in open terms, we can better understand that our goals won’t be easy and that overcoming our goals will not be as glamorous as a Hollywood movie montage would suggest, but that incremental action can nevertheless drive us to where we set our sights.