By: Yiqin Houston
Don’t have the time? Actually, maybe you do.
Particularly after big life events, the end of a calendar year or returning from a holiday, I often hear friends and colleagues say things such as “I’m going to try and get fit”, or “this year I’m going to read more”, or “I’m going to start learning X”. Whether it’s excitement, anticipation of success or determination, there is a palpable belief that this time, and for this goal, it will happen.
If you are reading this, you know how this story goes. Perhaps a few weeks pass, sometimes a month or two. The person says that they’ve changed their mind, citing that they haven’t had a chance to yet, or just don’t really have the time for it.
The idea of running out of time, or not having enough time has always seemed a little odd to me. Time is an empirical measurement and unless you are literally flying across time zones, it is 24 hours a day on earth. Time isn’t something that is elastic that we can stretch to fit whatever we want to do.
A few years ago, I came across a shift in perspective that revolutionised how I view time. If I catch myself saying I don’t have enough time for that, I rephrase it as: “this is not a priority for me”. This change in perspective is both a more honest assessment of the situation, and a realisation that perhaps my priorities could be different.
Time is a measurement that is equal for everyone, but priorities are not – priorities are different for everyone. Priorities are why we choose to spend our 24 hours a day differently from one another. Here’s one definition of priorities:
“Our priorities are the areas of our lives that are meaningful and important to us. They’re usually activities, practices, or relationships that we want to put genuine effort and time into.” 1
When our priorities are mismatched with how we actually spend our time, then this is why we feel like there isn’t enough time.
For example, I might believe in making my family a priority. However if every weeknight I work late, and on the weekends I pack my days going out, catching up with friends, and watching Tiktok videos into the wee hours of the morning (hypothetically of course) —then I might complain I don’t have enough time. However what has actually happened is that I have made work, social interaction with friends, and relaxing a priority over my family. What I say my priorities are, may not stand up to the evidence of my life.
So what can we do about not having enough time? Or rather, how can we bridge the gap between what we want our priorities to be and our lived experience?
Conventional wisdom on choosing your priorities offers tips such as:
- Write all the things you wish you had time for, and then start to order them by importance
- Define your goals by dreaming up what you wish you could be in 10 years, or
- Reverse engineer the person you wish to become at your own funeral.
Whilst many of these tips have merit, at the end, this quote sums up where most of these guides on prioritising take you: “The list is endless, so it’s up to you to figure out what is most important to you.”
That’s where I think the heart of the problem lies. Yes, there are lots of tips and tricks to help us align our lived experiences with our priorities, once we have identified what they are. But what if the problem is this: how do we figure out what is important to us in the first place if the list to choose from is endless?
I’d like to suggest a solution: focus on choosing better priorities. Here are three questions I ask myself when I seek to do this.
1. Who do I want to become?
This is the first question I ask myself, because priorities have a future-orientation. If I wanted to reach certain career milestones for example, that would impact what I prioritise in the present.
Who do I want to become? For me, it’s a question of who I want to emulate.
For me, as a follower of Jesus, I find the person of Jesus fascinating.
Jesus was a leader with a cause.
Powerful leaders often use their followers for their own ends. Jesus is not like this. He warns his followers that tough times will be ahead but not to be afraid.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” [Matthew 10:29-31]
That’s such a picture of intimate care! And such power! That’s the kind of leader I want to follow.
And when it comes to a cause – I find something very appealing about living for a cause. It means my life is tied up with something bigger than just myself.
Jesus wanted to change lives. He wants to see our relationship with our Creator restored, so that we can enjoy a full life, both now and forever. He makes this possible by dying on the cross. That’s the kind of cause I want to get behind.
So when I am uncertain if I should take up a priority, I ask myself: Does this new priority help me to become more like Jesus?
2. What do I want to be known for?
I actually find the tips about reverse engineering your priorities based on what you want people to share at your funeral quite helpful. Books, movies, even actual funerals… I find there is something moving about seeing the impact we can have on others in our lifetime, both helpful and harmful.
To be honest, I used to believe that not caring what people think made me more free to set the priorities I wanted. However, I have come to realise that the opposite is somehow true. From a faith perspective, I find it most freeing to live knowing I am both indebted to God and yet completely accepted by Him.
I am indebted to God because Jesus died for me. I am completely accepted by God because Jesus died for me. When we have experienced deep care for ourselves it does help us to care for others. Jesus cares for me, and because of that I want to be fully present in every moment and take every opportunity to make a helpful impact on the lives of those around me.
3. What do I need to give up?
Since there are only 24 hours in a day, I cannot humanly do everything. There will always be trade-offs. There will always be sacrifices.
What I’ve found is that the trade-offs are clearer—and at times easier—when I know the person I want to become. For me, one trade off has been to be more intentional in my social connections.
A few years ago, I mentioned to a mutual friend that I found it difficult to retain close female friendships. Her response surprised me; she asked me what I was doing to intentionally nurture those relationships. I realised I had not prioritised time with friends. If I wanted to be a person who loved and cared for others, then I had to make my social relationships a priority. I didn’t need more time, I needed to realign my priorities to who I wanted to become. After this conversation, I added friend dates to my calendar on a regular basis.
So if you’re feeling like you don’t have time, maybe you do. Maybe the real issue is choosing better priorities.
Q. Who do you want to become?
Q. What do you want to be known for?
Q. What do you need to give up?
Q. How are your priorities aligned with your values?
1 There is some overlap between priorities and personal values. Our personal values are also what is important to us, however they are less strongly connected to specific activities, practices and relationships. They represent what is important to us across all these things.