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.
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A Monetary Yardstick

Time is a resource that does not seem to be well understood or well used in society today. We spend a lot of time at jobs we do not fully enjoy, and when we are not working and have leisure time, we are afraid of boredom and don’t know how to use time to be present in the moment. Author Colin Wright has approached this problem head on, and found some solutions.  Through his writing he has been able to reconnect with the present moment and direct his time according to his own desires. In his book, Come Back Frayed, he writes about his travels to the Philippines and what control over his time means to him. After explaining that in his life, his goals have been related to finding control in as many of his decisions and actions as possible, he writes about a feature in a Forbes article. He was profiled for the way he spends his time earning relatively little money. He writes,

 

“The response to such a story is a confused one, particularly amongst some of my entrepreneurial friends. When you’re part of that culture, a clever person dedicated to building something of value, something you believe will make the world a better place, will solve problems which plague humanity, will elevate you to a higher status, that of ‘successful entrepreneur,’ the yardstick you’ve been provided is a monetary one.”

 

Wright’s criticism is in the way that many successful entrepreneurs judge success. Financial success, bank account statements, company valuations, and access to funding become the indicators of success for most people. How we judge whether someone made an impact in the world becomes entangled with financial success. What Wright continues to explain is how he has chosen to measure success in his personal life differently. Rather than searching for greater sources of revenue and income, he focuses on freedom and expanding his ability to make his own choices.

 

When we decide that we will no longer allow financial success to be the true measure of how successful we are, we open our lives to a new realm of possibilities. Rather than continuing to spend more time focused on work and growth for the sake of financial gain, we can begin to align our lives with the things that truly matter to us, help us be present in the moment, and allow us to have a personal impact on the world. The financial yardstick we become accustom to does not do a good job of truly measuring the type of people we are or the quality of our actions. Our culture’s decision that success is equivalent to monetary wealth may help serve us well in terms of having many exciting things, but it also pushes us toward hedonism and lifestyles that can be unhealthy physically, mentally, and socially. I do not have the solution that Wright seems to have found for replacing the monetary yardstick, but I am able to recognize that a focus beyond money and beyond possessions can help us adopt a more well rounded life. The challenge is how to align life with the things that truly matter, and to find an appropriate place for money and success.

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.

The Long Haul

Another shift in perspective that author Ryan Holiday presents in his book The Obstacle is the Way is focused around the time frames through which we view the world and the things which happen to us. When we look at where we are and what is happening to us it is easy to be overwhelmed and frustrated by the negative things that occur on a daily basis. Often times when we step back and look at a longer view of our life and our actions, we see that what happens today that feels so negative is often a very small blip in the narrative of our life. Holiday writes,

 

“There’s no need to sweat this or feel rushed. No need to get upset or despair. You’re not going anywhere—you’re not going to be counted out. You’re in this for the long haul.
Because when you play all the way to the whistle, there’s no reason to worry about the clock. You know you won’t stop until it’s over—that every second available is yours to use. So temporary setbacks aren’t discouraging. They are just bumps along a long road that you intend to travel all the way down.”

 

Holiday’s advice is to give up worrying about things in our past that have plagued us, and to instead focus on how we can move forward in a new direction. What held us back in the past does not dictate what we are capable of today, and just because we missed an opportunity in the past does not mean that we are out of time for improving ourselves or beginning a new path today. This not just a shift in perspective of the past, but it is a reassurance that we don’t need to be limited by the expectations that we have always held, and we are not pushed into or out of certain opportunities because of our age or experience.

 

When we connect Holiday’s quote above to the theme of the book we see that each little bump and setback along the road helps us improve. As we face more small bumps and challenges our lives can feel overwhelmingly challenging and unfairly difficult, but if we learn from each bump and grow, we will constantly be improving and developing ourselves to handle future challenges. Looking over the entire span of our life, past, present, and where we expect to go in the future, we can see each challenge as a badge of knowledge and experience showing that we can handle difficulties that arise in the future. We can see the obstacles we have overcome in our rearview mirror, study how we overcame our challenges, and apply those lessons to our current dilemmas or use those lessons to prepare for  the challenges we have yet to face. The important thing to remember is that our current challenge is not what will define our life, but rather a small chapter in the story of how we applied ourselves throughout our time on this planet.