What Do I Do First When It ALL Seems Important? {Thoughts on Priorities}

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All pics in this post are from our monthly day adventure last month of going to our favorite u-pick apple orchard. Family day adventures are ALWAYS something we prioritize!

Starting about a week and a half after my second child was born, an interesting phenomenon started to happen with alarming frequency–

One or both of the kids would be either down for a nap or at preschool, leaving me some much-needed time to “get things done.” Knowing that this precious gift might last for as short as five minutes or as long as a couple of hours, I wanted to make sure I took advantage of it, as I never knew exactly when my next chance would be. The wheels in my head would start spinning–what should I do first? How should I prioritize this chunk of time?

Maybe I would even get as far as making a plan, such as “I’d better go tackle the dishes first” or “I should take advantage of the uninterrupted quiet to edit a photo session.”

Then I would start heading that direction, and I would notice that the laundry closet doors were open, which reminded me that I needed to run a load real quick. I probably should do that before anything else.

I reversed direction to head back into our room to get our dirty undergarments (because #priorities), and I would notice that I hadn’t made the bed yet. “That will only take a minute,” I thought. I’d best just do that now.”

So I’d start to make the bed. Then I noticed that my phone was still by my bedside, meaning that I hadn’t checked it for hours. “Best just check that real fast, just to make sure nothing important came through.”

Sure enough, I’d gotten a text from my husband requesting that I look up some bit of information or other, or maybe a request from somebody at church.

I headed to the computer to look it up. Walking to the computer, I’d notice the laundry doors open again.

And then, as I stood there, wondering what to do, my mind would become almost paralyzed—how on earth was I going to ever get anything done again? What should I do first? (Because by this point, I STILL hadn’t done anything!)

Think, Torrie, think. FOCUS. What had I planned to do today, again? Oh yeah, draft that blog post. I’ll just finish making the bed and get the laundry going super quick before I start though, because I know those need to be done too and they’ll be fast.

*cue the sound of the baby fussing in the background*

Aaaaaand, long story short—

Nothing would get done. Or, more accurately, fifteen things would get about 15% done.

This started happening so often that anytime a spare pocket of good work time came up, my brain would just skip straight past any sort of logical sorting process and go straight to panic. I would start panicking about how many minutes I’d already wasted just standing there, indecisive. I would get so anxious about what it was I “should” be doing (and not knowing at any given time what the “best” answer to that was) that I ended up getting almost nothing done, as I was never able to settle on just one thing that needed doing most.

When both children were awake and our time was unstructured (aka, we weren’t having to go to the grocery store or something), my thoughts were just as frenzied. I would move to go do the dishes, and I would think of people saying, “Babies don’t keep! The dishes can wait!”

Or when Raven was asking me for the millionth time that hour to play yet another game with her but I was really needing to call the insurance company or pay bills or sort the mail or do one of the other 108 things pressing for my attention, I would hear a voice in my head–“She won’t want you to play with her forever, you know. And you’ll miss this when that day comes.”

So I would snuggle the baby more. I would play another game of Memory with Raven, or read her another book, or play “Dollies and Ponies” with her.

And they both loved it. (Of course they did!)

And of course, I appreciated the quality time together, too.

But then one day I also realized, “The baby would literally love me to hold him all day, every day. Raven would be delighted if I spent every waking second playing with her. But the other stuff in the house has to get done, too! And if I don’t get this stuff finished on time for my photography clients, they’ll never hire me again! If I don’t work on my own personal projects, I’ll lose a big part of what brings me joy and relaxation on a daily basis!

In other words, the question of priorities started to seem not so clear cut at all, though everyone is always reminding me that I need to embrace every waking second with my children because “they grow up so fast.” (As if I didn’t already know.)

The fact is, I DO need to spend quality time with my spouse and children.

But I also need to make sure my household keeps running smoothly (which is also serving my spouse and children) by doing such things as prepping meals, cleaning up from meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house, etc.

And, in order to make sure I have the energy to do both of the above, I need to make sure I’m taking care of myself. I need to make sure I get an adequate amount of sleep (even if it will never be enough at this stage), I need to get regular exercise, and I need to be able to work on personal projects or enjoy my favorite hobbies semi-regularly (like reading or blogging) so that I don’t feel like my days are solely spent meeting other people’s demands every second and rush towards burnout.

I also need to prioritize my personal spiritual growth, consciously take the time to teach those principles that matter most to the children, and fulfill my church calling (as a Primary teacher) to the best of my ability. Additionally, I’m also aware of the divine mandate to serve others, to minister to and love my neighbors.

Needless to say, it can become overwhelming at times. (It IS overwhelming at times, as you can plainly see from my regular spasms of mental paralysis.)

The funny thing is, I’m currently reading the book Deep Work AND re-reading the book Essentialism, both of which talk incessantly of the need to stop focusing our energy on a million different things at once and of carving out distraction-free time to pursue what is truly the most important.

The irony is not lost on me.

However, while I think Deep Work and Essentialism are easy to apply in my professional life (to things like blogging or my photography business), they’re not as clear on how to apply that prioritization outside of traditional work.

Like I said, the fact is, there are LOTS of things I do that are ALL important. So, what’s an overwhelmed mom to do?

Well, first off, I absolutely need to say that in NO WAY do I have things totally figured out. This question of priorities is something I have actively been wrestling with and pondering over for the past 3+ months. I have been praying almost daily for weeks and weeks and weeks to gain some clarity on how I should navigate the paradox of priorities at this juncture in my life.

And while I feel like the answers haven’t all come, I do feel like SOME answers have come.

So I’ll share what I’ve figured out for myself so far.

1. Lean into the season that you’re in.

There’s a quote I love that I often try to keep in mind when I feel overwhelmed by my current season in life:

“Think about your particular assignment at this time in your life. It may be to get an education, it may be to rear children, it may be to be a grandparent, it may be to care for and relieve the suffering of someone you love, it may be to do a job in the most excellent way possible, it may be to support someone who has a difficult assignment of their own. Our assignments are varied and they change from time to time. Don’t take them lightly. Give them your full heart and energy. Do them with enthusiasm. Do whatever you have to do this week with your whole heart and soul. To do less than this will leave you with an empty feeling.”
Marjorie Pay Hinckley

One of the hardest parts about being a mother for me personally is to totally lean in to this season of my life, just because I’ve always been the kind of person who is passionate and motivated about so many different things and I always have a million different personal projects I want to be doing. While I recognize that I don’t need to give up all these personal projects right now, I also have very clearly received a personal impression that for me, in this season of my life, I need to learn how to put mothering first.

For me, this means that I give it my highest priority–I give it the best of my energy and planning, I put it ahead of trying to grow my photography business or the blog, and I frequently make the time to reflect on how I’m doing. I am fortunate in that I’m able to work from home in a very part-time capacity, which does give me more time with my children. However, I must note that I strived to do the same thing when I worked full-time outside of the home as a teacher–I made sure that when I was home and my daughter was awake that we were taking advantage of that time together and that we mindfully planned our evenings and weekends to have maximum quality family time. I also talked to my principal and worked out a slightly altered schedule that allowed me to complete all my contract time before school rather than stay after, and I tried really hard to use all of my work hours productively so that I rarely needed to bring work home. I’m not always perfect about making mothering my first priority, but I do regularly try to focus on how I can be better.

So, when it comes to the main point of this post, I have learned that in this season of my life, I need to embrace the fact that I will be running on less sleep, that I won’t likely have the time to be training for long-distance races anytime soon (like I used to), that I won’t be blogging 3-4 times a week like in the past, and that my house will almost always be in a state of mild chaos due to the toys and books and baby things strewn about at any given point in the day.

This realization makes it easier to give myself a little grace when it comes to a lot of the things I’d like to be doing better at, like cleaning my house or more actively improving my photography.

Knowing that this is just a season helps too because it makes me realize that this won’t last forever and that I’ll be better off using this time for the things that naturally go along with this stage in our lives and saving some of the other projects for later points in life.

2. Make sure that on a daily basis, you are actually working on what you claim are your true priorities.

Over these past few months, as I’ve been praying a lot about how to discern between what I should prioritize during this season of my life and how I should know on a daily basis how I should divide my time, a scripture story has come to my mind multiple times:

The Pharisees and Sadducees (two different sects of Judaism during Jesus’ time) were both trying to ensnare Jesus by asking him complex questions that were meant to trip him up and make him reveal something contrary to the scriptures and divine law that had been revealed up until that time. At one point, a Pharisaic lawyer asked Jesus:

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 36-40)

In other words, Jesus was teaching that if you love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, you will keep all the other commandments that have been given, such as the commandment to pray, the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, the commandment not to lie, etc.

The way I’ve translated this to my own life situation is this phrase:

Spiritual over worldly, people over projects.

If I’m trying to choose between many good and worthy ways to spend my time, I think of ways to prioritize the spiritual over the worldly (or the things of eternal importance over the things of temporal importance) and to choose people over projects. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to see to our temporal needs (like prepping meals, doing the laundry, or attending to things like scheduling doctor appointments or coordinating preschool pickups), but it does mean that in each day, I should make time for the highest priorities FIRST, and then let the other things fit in as they may (more on that in a minute).

That way, even if I don’t get around to everything on my to-do list (so basically this applies to every day), I at least got around to those things I’m choosing as my top priorities.

The best way for me to make sure these top priorities actually happen every day? Make them into habits. Every Sunday, we attend church as a family. Each Monday evening, we hold Family Night, where we take the time to explain gospel principles to our children and enjoy an activity together. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, we read scriptures together and pray together. Having these habits already in place makes it a lot easier to make sure that we’re touching on those all-important things each day, and then I also try to take advantage of other quality teaching moments that come up during the course of our normal day, as well.

3. Make a weekly plan (and, ideally, a monthly and even yearly one, too).

For a couple years now, I have sat down every Sunday night to write down a to-do list for the week ahead. More recently, I have also started mapping out a general plan for each morning and each afternoon/evening so that I’m fitting in as many of the important pieces of my life into each week that I can. I also try to meal prep for the week ahead when I do this, which saves me a lot of time and angst later on. (For more on how I meal plan, you can check out this post.)

Also, I sit down at the end of each month to set goals for the month ahead. I make sure to go through all the important “categories” of my life each time I do this, which not only helps me to keep my life more balanced in general, but it also gives me a built-in time to reflect on how I’m doing every month. As I make that goal list, I consciously consider things such as the following:

  • Big milestones coming up for our children that we need to prep for (such as potty training, immunizations, preschool, etc.)
  • Family activities that we want to enjoy together. (For years, we’ve been doing family “day adventures” on a monthly basis, which gives us something each month to look forward to and has ensured that we’re consistently building up a well of positive memories together.)
  • Holidays coming up that might require some prep or that have special traditions attached (coloring Easter eggs, carving pumpkins, or keeping up with our annual Friendsgiving, to name a few)
  • Spiritual goals that aren’t already attached to a specific time or daily routine (such as making sure we go to the temple monthly, doing family history, completing something as part of our church callings, etc.)
  • Ways to strengthen our marriage (such as planning out a particular date night or working together on a project)
  • Any health-related habits or goals I’m currently working on (such as completing an exercise program, attending a certain number of exercise classes, or signing up for a race)
  • Projects around the house and yard, especially those for the particular season we’re in at the time (such as mulching garden beds, completing a decluttering project, or fixing a plumbing issue)
  • Household-related “nagging tasks” that need to be done (such as car registration, scheduling dentist appointments, etc.)
  • Personal goals and projects (which are often informed by the 101 in 1001 list I made back in January)

Once that monthly goal list is in place, I make sure to add items from it to my weekly list (or break the bigger projects down into smaller steps for my weekly to-do list) so that I’m keeping those things top of mind.

By taking the time to do this every week and every month, I know that if I have a chunk of time ahead of me and don’t know where to turn my focus, I can always refer to my list.

4. Have a daily routine in place.

I think one of the biggest reasons I was so anxious those first few weeks after Mathias was born was that our routine was TOTALLY thrown out of whack, which was a big part of why I felt so overwhelmed. Before, I had one day a week where I did all the laundry (Friday), a list of weekly chores that I tried to get done, and then certain daily tasks that I usually did at the same time each day (like cleaning out the dishwasher first thing each morning and running it through last thing each night). Having a newborn threw that all out the window for awhile, which is part of the reason why I felt so overwhelmed by all that was going undone.

Now that our son is a bit older, we are getting back into a set routine, which has made a lot of things easier.

When he finally starts sleeping through the night regularly (SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME THAT’S SOON), I’ll start up doing my daily morning routine again, which will also help a ton.

5. When small pockets of time to work come up, just dive in to whatever’s closest and don’t worry about the finish line.

With our week roughly mapped out each Sunday night on my to-do list and each day having a loose routine we follow, I pretty much always know when my larger chunks of productive time are going to happen (and I’ve even started going so far as to have a plan for almost all of those times). But during the day, I’ll have smaller chunks of time that come up too that were unplanned, such as Raven happily playing by herself (or with the baby) in the other room, or times when Matt takes Raven outside while the baby takes a catnap in here in the early evening. When those times come up, I know that there’s no guarantee that they’ll last long. So rather than dither about, trying to decide which thing is most worthy of my attention, I simply start where I’m at and dive in with whatever I notice first (trust me, it doesn’t take much looking around).

It’s no secret that I’m not the greatest housekeeper of all time (hence the reason for the fact that I’ve written posts such as 20 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Clean the House and These are the Chores I Hate (+ This is How I Make Myself Hate Them Less)). So, for me, one of the WORST things I can do is to try and plan out what project I want to take on at that point in time because it allows me too much time to stall and then inevitably frustrates me when I don’t end up having the time I needed to complete whatever project I finally ended up settling on. So I just make myself start with whatever’s right in front of me.

I notice some trash? I pick it up right then. I see four pairs of toddler shoes strewn about? I gather them up and take them to my daughter’s room. I remember an important email I need to send? I send it right then, while it’s on my mind. Following this mindset means that whether the chunk of productive time lasts five minutes or fifty minutes, I am completing things that need to be done and making our house better than it was before.

6. Cut down on the fluff.

Things like spending time on social media or checking email can easily become a time suck of hours per day if we let them be. If I’m struggling to use the time I do have productively, I literally close the laptop or shut down the computer and put my to-do list right in front of it instead. I’ve also found that going through conscious “fasts” from social media and the Internet in general on a semi-regular basis can help to stem the mindless consumption of that which ultimately does us little good.

Also, earlier this year, I got in the habit of severely cutting down on the time I spend watching t.v. or movies. At first, it was to get myself out of a bad habit of t.v. watching that I’d gotten into when pregnant and feeling horribly sick, but then I liked so much how my one-week fast from all things television freed up my evenings and my attention to pursue other things, and I never went back. I currently watch one hour of t.v. most weeks (Matt and I will watch the latest episode of Relative Race as soon as it becomes available), and that’s it. Occasionally, Matt and I will do a date night in where we’ll watch a show or movie together on a weekend night after the kids are in bed, but to me, that’s quality time since it’s planned, intentional, and not happening every night.

7. Know when to just let yourself rest.

I once read somewhere that most people tend to either naturally favor work or play, and whichever one you DON’T favor, you need to be more conscious about making time (and a plan!) for. For me, I LOVE to work. It’s something I think about for fun, and I’m always looking for ways to work more, do more, accomplish more. However, I know from personal experience that it’s important to take time out for fun, for making happy memories, for peaceful reflection, and for true rest. So sometimes, when my mind is abuzz with all that I’m leaving undone and I’m paralyzed with anxiety about what I need to do, I actually choose…to do none of it. I’ll sit down with a book (one purely meant for enjoyment, not one I’ve assigned myself or that I’m reading off of one of my lists). I’ll let myself take a nap (if the children happen to be napping, too). I’ll take the kids for a walk. I’ll let myself do a Sudoku puzzle.

Sometimes those rest periods are planned, sometimes they’re not. But I’ve learned never to feel guilty for them because I know that I’m using most of the rest of my time pretty well.

And in the end, that’s how I know if I’m “succeeding” with living in line with my priorities (as much as I can, anyway)—if I feel like I can take my breaks with the knowledge that I haven’t been squandering away a ton of time, I’m at peace. It might not be how other people measure their success at it, but it’s an internal measurement that works for me.

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I wrote this post in between feeding the baby (twice), picking up Raven from preschool, unloading the dishwasher, and prepping, eating, and cleaning up from lunch. I read two books to Raven before sending her to her room for naptime/quiet time, and I spent time cuddling the baby and playing with and reading to him. I still have to switch the laundry over and throw in another load. I think I only made half the bed this morning (again). The desk that my laptop sits on is a total wreck (and it’s on my to-do list this week to declutter it!). But day by day, I’m figuring it out, sifting the important from the not-as-important, the best from the just fine. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying our best.

That’s good enough for now.