This article first appeared on Happify
It’s no secret that our lives will be over one day. The busyness, the running around, the involvement in a hundred things will all come to an end. And what we’ll leave behind is not the to-do lists we ticked off or the disjointed activities we halfheartedly engaged in. It’ll be the big things that mattered deeply to us, that helped us leave the world a little better than we found it.
Lives today don’t make it easy to spend time on these bigger things. The distractions that surround us, the endless choices we’re bombarded with, the calls to do more and to do better are incessant. We stuff our schedules and our minds. We try to do it all and eventually burn ourselves out. Or we give in to the distractions and leave our best lives behind.
Why are we so susceptible? It’s partly our biology—we seek pleasure and live for the dopamine high it brings. This wiring is so deep that we even fear missing out on the promise of pleasure. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a very real emotion for many of us, constantly fed by the world we live in.
There are also the social influences around us. How many people do you know who reply to “How are you?” with “Busy”? Having ample time on your hands is hardly considered a symbol of success unless you’re one of the rich and famous. And those of us who use distractions or grittiness to hide our “unworthy” insides are even more imprisoned by this world of nonstop activity.
If you feel the frustration of not living the life that truly matters to you, here’s good news: You don’t have to change everything all at once. Building a legacy is the work of a lifetime, and small and steady steps keep you on a journey you’re unlikely to give up on. Here’s how to build a life you value:
Rule #1: Know Your Priorities
There’s nothing like knowing where you need to go in order to get there! Many of us don’t; we live by default and react to whatever comes our way. Being clear on your priorities allows you to live by design, to respond to life’s distractions, and to set goals that are aligned with your values. Here are some questions that can guide you: “What is the difference I want to make?” “Who are the people I want to spend my time with?” “What are the passions or needs that I want to attend to?”
Rule #2: Take Inventory
Remember the “You Are Here” signs on shopping-mall maps? They’re essential to getting to where you want to go. When you assess where you are, try to be as honest with yourself as possible. This means stepping away from justifications, excuses, and blaming. It also means being gentle with yourself, regardless of where you are. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re right where you need to be in order to bring about the change you want.
Rule #3: Create the Space You Can
With this clarity about the beginning and ending, you can begin to craft the journey. The secret is to have reasonable expectations of yourself. You’re creating habits that need to last a long time, so begin small. Identify the gaps of time you already have. What are the meaningful activities you can fill them with? A 10-minute walk or nap? A daily or weekly email of gratitude? A 15-minute bedtime snuggle with your child? Perhaps 20 minutes of reading or writing time every morning? Because once you start something, it’s so much easier to build on it.
Rule #4: Learn to Say No
Once you’ve started on the things that matter, it’s really important to protect that time. This means learning how to say no. And many of us struggle with this, including those of us who are sensitive, those of us who feel like we lack self-worth or a driving purpose, even those of us who have a strong inclination to help (because some people happily exploit it). Saying no is easier when you remind yourself that it means saying yes to the things that matter. Remember to say so politely, so you don’t hurt your image or their feelings.
Rule #5: Clear Your Mind
Finally, get ahold of your emotional world, because there’s little point in creating time and space in your life only to fill it with fears, grudges, and to-do lists. To this end, I’ve found it particularly helpful to name the feelings that come up as I experience them. That means literally saying, “Grudge is here,” or, “Frustration is here.” This creates just the distance you need from your emotional world to allow you to appraise the situation and decide what to do about it. It allows you to safely say, “The grudge can wait, because right now I’m spending time with my family.”
And if your mind flees back to that negative feeling, bring your mind gently back to the moment you’ve chosen to be in. Give yourself fully to it. Engage with its nuances and novelty, since time expands when you do so, allowing you to spend more of that time on the things that matter to you.