I suppose that I have been an organized and “productive” person my whole life. I naturally place great emphasis on accomplishing tasks, and I value work done well. But there was a point somewhere in my twentieth year of life when I realized that there was a definitive gap between the orderliness of my daily life and the things I actually wanted to achieve. I had great and lofty ambitions, and although I was organized, tidy, and productive, it seemed as if those great and lofty ambitions never came to fruition the way I wanted. I had to confront myself with the reality that the connecting piece between my dreams and what I actually, physically did was none other than habit. My motivation abounded, but my habits–the building blocks of my life–did not match my spiritual and creative enthusiasm.
What is a habit, exactly? According to my dictionary, it is “An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” Acquired is key here. I had to go out and get these habits for myself. No amount of dreaming or planning would replace the actual hard work of acquiring better choices to restructure the complicated jumble of my dreams and goals. I had to craft my life in accordance with my dreams in order to combat the unreliability of my whimsical nature.
I’m sharing three of the most valuable habits I’ve managed to acquire. These simple actions have enriched my life and expanded my bandwidth for productivity and creativity, and I hope they do the same for you.
1. Writing everything down.
I used to think that carrying a calendar with dates of tests, quizzes, and important events would do the trick. What I realized is that, in order to live a life by design, one must take ownership of all of their time, not just the fleeting, two-hour blocks of commitment. The hours of the day are limiting or limitless, depending on your point of view. When I write down the small, minute details of my hours, weeks, and years, I can see where my time is actually going, not just where I desire it to go. If I do not know my time, and become intimately acquainted with its comings and goings, I am at the mercy of the present whim. I not only learn from how I spend my time, growing in that inevitable self-knowledge, but I view my time as a canvas just waiting to be filled with dazzling dreams and strategic mazes and a record of hard work. “Know thyself,” for me, means “Know what thou art actually doing.”
2. First things first.
I used to do first what I liked doing best, but I ran into problems when I realized that what I liked doing best was not always what I ought to be doing first at all. I think that we, as human beings, naturally gravitate towards the things we enjoy doing. But the actions that aid in us in bettering ourselves, or require our utmost attention, often must be done in spite of the fact that we don’t savor their doing. I enjoy watching Netflix at the end of a long work day, and I enjoy texting my friends. I enjoy daily prayer, grading papers, washing dishes, and answering emails far less. Surprisingly, when I reoriented my innate desire for gratification with tackling my duties first and foremost, I not only accomplished my responsibilities quicker, but I did not mind them so much. I even think of phrases like, “Anticipation is nine tenths of delight” to help me remember that having my duties fulfilled and then allowing myself to relax makes both the duties and the relaxing infinitely more satisfying than the reverse.
3. Saying “I love you.” And meaning it every single time.
I used to be gratified by leaving my family or my spouse with a dramatic exit, or letting them feel my wrath with a sharp word or silence. This summer, I was helping to decorate for my friend’s wedding when I noticed my phone was ringing. Meh, I was busy, but I saw it was my dad and I decided to answer. He was frustrated over the chaos of my family’s schedule and some argument of my siblings. By some inner prompting, I stepped aside from hanging the twinkling lights and took ten minutes to talk with him, assuring him of the big picture and that everything would be okay. We all love each other, Dad, and that’s what matters at the end of the day. I love you. Little did I know that this would be the last time I ever talked to my dad on this earth. I learned of his death early the next morning. My final words to him were almost those of frustration, but by simply choosing to rise above my small grievances, I was able to create a moment of simple love, and this has engraved itself so intensely on my soul that I will never again let my loved ones leave without exchanging the simplest I love you. Even though we may craft our time in our planners and fill it with prioritized choices, it is ultimately not our own, and we know not the time or the hour when we will breathe our last.
In the meantime, I want to live in such as way that I do not feel dissatisfied with the daily life I create and abide in. Some might seem to view meticulously planning and prioritizing time as binding or limiting, and to them I say, “Have you tried?” Because in forming these habits I have not only discovered the beauty of a well crafted life, but the interior freedom that radiates from them. As Tolstoy writes, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”