Dream, Discern, Do What Matters: 3 steps to living the life you really want.

Is there a disconnect between the life you imagine --and the life you're living?

So we’re all in agreement: this is the year of doing less, and doing a better job of those things we choose to focus on. But how do we know what to choose, and how do we cut through the constant voices in our heads telling us to do more, achieve more, be busier?

Step one? Realizing that this is enough. That’s the touchy-feely, spiritual side of the do-less-better equation. Being in the moment, turning your full attention to whatever it is you’re doing, whether you’re changing a diaper or driving carpool.

But let’s face it: there’s a practical side, too, and that’s what this post is about. Because most of us can’t just float through life appreciating every small moment, as lovely and Zen as that sounds. We have, well, stuff to do, a schedule to keep, and a task list to stay on top of. That’s reality.

So the real key lies in figuring out what really needs to be done–and doing that first. But how do we know if a thing needs to be done or is just one of those things that is a nice idea if you’ve got the time for it? What’s the difference between much-needed leisure and wasting time? What activities are worth investing our time, money and energy in? Here are three steps to help you figure it out:

1. Dream. Some of us are great at this step. We walk around with our heads in the clouds all the time, but never get around to doing the hard work of creating a life that supports your dreams. For others, dreaming feels a little too woo-woo compared to actual, measurable achievements. But dreaming is a necessary step, because it helps you define your goals, priorities, and values (as opposed to the ones you think you should have, or that you drift into by default, or appropriate from somebody else.)

Before you can figure out what you need to be doing, you have to have a good idea of:

  • Your goals and wishes for your family, yourself, your work
  • What you love to do, and what you’re especially good at
  • What values you want to shape your life

Some people create a mission statement or manifesto to serve as a reminder and framework:

2. Discern.

Think about how you spend a typical day. Which of the things that currently take up your time actually contribute to your priorities, and which ones don’t?

For example, maybe you got on Facebook initially to communicate with friends, but now find that you spend hours each week semi-stalking people from high school that you don’t ever intend to really re-connect with or sifting through status updates from people you aren’t even sure you actually know. Would you be better off sending regular emails to your “real” friends, or cutting your Facebook connections way down?

Or maybe you run a small business and feel obligated to master every last marketing and networking tool possible, but find that your efforts are so diluted that you can’t gain traction in any one place and your products are suffering, too. Where is your attention most needed?

Do fewer things. Do them better.

We have a wealth of tools available to help us communicate, stay in touch, find information or do our jobs more easily–but we tend to use them so indiscriminately that they actually get in the way of forging real connections or getting anything done (Guilty!)

And sometimes things pop up in front of us all day long, seeming so urgent, but getting in the way of what’s truly important. Simple Mom wrote a great post about fighting the tyranny of the urgent. From her post:

“Far too often, we focus on the urgent things in front of us, and at the end of the day, the things we really care about — the important — were barely given a glance.”

Like that day I read two dozen press releases for no reason other than they were right in front of me, and spent a half hour trying to decipher what some juicy bit of blog gossip was about, and at the end of the day realized I’d never made time to read to my kids? Yeah, like that.

3. Do what needs to be done first.

If you’ve worked your way through steps 1 and 2, you should be getting a pretty good idea of those things in your life that support your values and help you reach your goals. And I’m guessing more than a few things are proving to just get in the way. Can you drop them, give them less time, or do them in a new way? For example, maybe you DVR a couple of shows you really want to watch after the kids go to bed, so you don’t end up aimlessly clicking through channels. Or maybe you can ask your children to choose one or two activities they really love–and drop the rest.

Of course, we all need some blow-off time, and we can’t fill every waking moment with so-called “meaningful” activity. But if the scales are tipped toward doing the things that need to be done, we can embrace that hour of HGTV or Twitter without guilt, without anxiety and without that sinking feeling that we’re letting our lives pass us by. On the other hand, when we’re trying to cram too much into our lives, we can’t even feel leisurely during leisure. Even downtime can be consciously chosen.

To sum up, I love this mantra from Amy Wilson, which inspired the title of this post: Do what matters. What a great way to look at life. Because what matters? Needs to be done. And what doesn’t matter? Doesn’t. The end.

Are you identifying some things you need to cut out or change in your life? Some other areas where you need to devote more time and energy?

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