Don’t Forget What’s Important While Taking Care of What’s Urgent

I just finished a project with a hard deadline. I turned over research and recommendations to other team members about a week ago. They crafted a slick Power Point show and flew to Dallas to deliver the BIG presentation.

I know I did a good job, but now I am feeling as if I have to start my life over. I am feeling depleted and a little disconnected.

I am sure most of us have experienced something like this. For six weeks, my entire schedule revolved around setting and juggling appointments related to this project, talking to the right people and conducting the fact-gathering work involved. I’m experiencing more than a little letdown.  For six weeks, I ate, drank, and dreamt this project.

During this time, I got into the habit of only skimming my mail and email. Needless to say, I missed a lot. I watched TV and worked out for distraction, not for pleasure or other benefits. Even at the gym, my mind kept running through scenarios of conversations I might have with people I was trying to get a hold of. I carried on social activities with family and friends as if they were obligations, as events I had to fit into my schedule.

Even when I had a little free time, I wasn’t fully showing up. I wasn’t ready to enjoy myself. I forgot what was important to me because I became so focused on taking care of what seemed urgent. It seemed that I had put my entire life on hold and now had to go through extra work to re-assemble the pieces.

I decided to devise some strategies to help me remember what’s really important to me so I wouldn’t lose myself the next time I have a critical project.

1) Know what little things give you pleasure. Pause regularly to notice how they might be present.

I have a gratitude practice that began when I identified little things I felt grateful for, boiled those experiences down to their most essential qualities and then started practicing seeing those qualities in the present moment. I can apply a similar strategy to keeping focused on what’s most important to me.

I asked myself to recall recent situations when I felt happy about something, even something small. My list included: watching children play on the beach, trying a new dish at a restaurant (and discovering my intuition was spot on), and running my bare feet over very thick, plush carpeting. Having such a list, I can pause periodically and pay extra attention to noticing the character or joy in children’s faces as I run errands, or trying something new at the local deli during a quick lunch, or pulling a cashmere sweater over my head as I get dressed.

2) Do something creative.

I feel most like myself when I am doing something creative, when I am doing something  no one else can do, or something no one else would do exactly like me. That might be making catfish tacos for dinner, or arranging flowers, or organizing my closet. I can forget these simple pleasures when trying to put something together for a client. Here, I am trying to think about what they want to hear. In the middle of a project that seems all-consuming, I know it’s a good idea to find ways and opportunities to express myself.

 3)  Read at least 15 minutes a day (not related to work).

Have you ever been so consumed by the demands of a project that you feel you’ve lost touch with what’s been happening in the world or stopped feeding your imagination?  Sometimes, I have realized that I have gone weeks without picking up a newspaper, or reading a novel. Yet, I know these activities re-fuel me. While I expect I’d feel too guilty to hole up in a coffee shop reading all day, I know I can afford to spend fifteen minutes getting lost in someone else’s words.

4) Adopt a daily ritual.  Don’t skip a day.

Morning walks, yoga or stretching routines, keeping a journal, or taking a long, hot   shower – I have found it important to have a daily ritual. A daily ritual is usually a simple activity that is meaningful to you. It doesn’t matter what the activity is. What matters is that you do the activity faithfully; at the same time every day, or at least every day. You’ll probably come up with compelling reasons why urgent commitments should justify altering your routine, but you send yourself a more important message when you keep your promises to yourself. If you keep up your rituals, when your deadline has passed, you won’t feel like you have to gather yourself and start your life over.

5) Ask other people how they are.

While working towards a goal, I have experienced flow moments. I’ll feel hyper aware of what’s going on around me and able to see how different things are connected. While narrowing my focus, I’ve also felt isolated. I’ll convince myself that no one would understand me or relate to my challenges and concerns. It’s precisely at these times when I need to get over myself and remember my relationships. Thinking about my friends and family reminds me that I had a life before I became so single-minded and will have a life again.  I’ll make a point to make some time to ask after the people I love and listen to what’s happening in their lives.

Sometimes, we are called upon to make extra efforts to realize a goal, but it’s important not to lose yourself during these periods.

They don’t give prizes for being busy. If your goal is feeling productive and satisfied with how you spend your time, give some thought to how to stay focused on what’s important to you even while something big is consuming a lot of your attention.
Deborah Hawkins is a writer, market researcher, and workshop designer. She blogs on gratitude and mindfulness,, and plans to publish Transform Your Life with an Attitude of Gratitude Writing Practice within the year.