I was stuck in traffic on my way home from work (about a two-hour ordeal on Friday evenings) when I realized that my concept of the word prioritize was completely wrong.
As I trudged along, I found myself making a mental list of all the tasks I needed to get done that weekend: Tackle my remaining work emails. Pick up a gift for Lindsay's bridal shower. Attend Lindsay's bridal shower. Revise and proofread my resume. Write two new blog posts. Plan meals for next week. Go grocery shopping. Go running. Visit my husband's family for dinner. Spend time with my mom and finally watch the season finale of Downton Abbey. Attend church and manage the coffee station. Clean the bathroom. Clean the floors (when was the last time I swept?). Read at least a few chapters of my new book. Spend time with my husband, Dan.
My list included more tasks than any normal human could accomplish in two days and a few hours.
Even for me, an early riser at six o'clock most mornings, it's too much, so I decided to prioritize: The events on my list were non-negotiable because I already made the commitments—bridal shower, family dinner, time with my mom—so everything else had to fit around those. Since we were going on vacation the following week, I really needed to finish my resume beforehand (my vacation also meant I'd be wearing a swimsuit, so I considered getting up 20 minutes early on Saturday to run an extra couple miles). We have to eat, so I'll fit in the grocery shopping and meal planning on Sunday.
On and on this went. By the time I arrived home, I had made an hour-by-hour weekend schedule for myself (a red flag, even for someone who loves a good plan). Reading, the activity that makes me feel the most recharged and sustained, was relegated to the last ten minutes (let's be real, five minutes) before my eyes slam shut in bed each night. My time with Dan was squeezed into attending church and our family dinner because we would be together anyway.
Is this my life?
My thoughts stirred and turned against me. That's not prioritizing.
Yes, it is. I made a list of all the things I needed to do, and then I decided the most logical order of operations to get it all done. I put the non-negotiable items first.
That's not prioritizing.
In that moment, I saw my ideas about prioritizing for what they were: distorted, unhealthy, and damaging. Prioritizing is not about choosing the correct order of tasks from an insanely long to-do list. Real prioritizing is about choosing what must get done, what can wait, and what actually needs to be scrapped altogether. It's about sacrificing important tasks to ensure that the most important tasks get the best of my time and energy.
I once complained to Dan that I felt as though I constantly had to balance eight to ten priorities at once. Dan responded, "Well, that's the problem. Priorities are meant to be a few of the most important things. When you prioritize more than that, they are no longer priorities. They're a task list." My life has become a task list. If I don't get control of this now, how will I ever build a strong, healthy marriage? How will I survive raising children?
I now believe successful prioritizing starts not with setting boundaries, but with filtering. By first having a strong filter for the endless tasks that could drown me, I can set appropriate boundaries on items that do not make it through the filter. These are the questions I'm asking myself as I relearn prioritizing:
Does it Honor God and Draw Me Closer to Him?
God is explicit about this in his Word. My first priority must be to honor him and put him first. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33, "Seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need." This sounds very different from my control-oriented mindset in which I decide what's on my to-do list, and I decide what is most important. By honoring God with my time and giving him the first portion of my energy, I allow him to work in different and better ways than I had planned.
Does it Make My Marriage Healthier?
My relationship with my husband is the most significant relationship I have on earth. God entrusted me with the heart of a wonderful man. I have the power to build him up or tear him apart. I have the power to make him feel desired or unwanted. What does it do to his soul when I choose work over intimacy? Conversely, what does it do for our marriage when I affirm him after a difficult day instead of fussing about how he forgot to clean the bathroom? When my priorities are caught up in desires that don't matter for eternity, I consistently make choices that neglect my husband. When I break this cycle, I breathe life into him.
Does it Make Me Healthier?
I am a steward of the body God gave me, and it is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Taking care of my body by cooking healthy meals and making time to exercise shows that I treasure this gift. I want to live a long, healthy life with Dan, and I hope to be healthy enough to have children and care for them well. However, as someone who has struggled with disordered eating and exercise habits, I must set healthy boundaries on this priority and not allow it to reign over everything else. Sometimes prioritizing time with Dan (or prioritizing my sanity when I just can't stand the idea of cooking another meal) means popping a frozen pizza in the oven or cutting my workout short. (So what if I don't look perfect in my swimsuit in vacation pictures?)
In addition to my physical health, I must prioritize my mental and emotional health. As a deep introvert, I need to make time to be quiet before God, to curl up with a book, and to enjoy solitude. If I don't, my energy levels become dangerously low, and my nerves frazzle. I snap at my husband and make poor decisions. Quiet time recharges me in a way that allows me to give of myself more freely and graciously.
Does it Build Up My Other Relationships and God's Kingdom?
Again, as a deep introvert, this is difficult for me. But, who at the end of their life would say, "I wish I had spent more time by myself, and less time with my friends." Let me be clear: to be a gracious friend, I have to make time for myself. Then, when I'm fully charged, I long to pour out love and grace to those around me.
Dan and I have a few trusted friends who can pour into our lives, speak truth about our relationship, encourage our souls, and spur us on—and we can do the same for them. If we never make time for these friends, these relationships will stay at the surface, and our marriage could stagnate.
I also need to make space to pour into my non-Christian friends. This doesn't have to be a grand gesture—it can be as simple as obeying the Spirit's prompting to bring a friend a cup of coffee or send an encouraging email. But when my mind is buzzing with tasks, I miss these whispers.
Is it Necessary for Living?
At the end of the day, my husband and I have bills to pay. Rent, student loan debt, and utility bills will still be there no matter how much time I make for Dan, myself, and our friends. I must prioritize being a diligent worker so I reflect Christ in my workplace, and so I can continue to receive a paycheck. There is a fine line, though, between working diligently and letting work consume me. Dan and I are both learning the value of working to live, not living to work, in this season of our marriage.
Even as I round out this list of questions, I think of more. I imagine this list will change in different seasons of life: with children, during periods of intense trials or grief, or in times of increased prosperity. For now, these are the questions to which I commit in order to orient my mind to true prioritization and to begin setting healthier boundaries.
Brittany Bergman is a freelance writer and an assistant copyeditor at Tyndale House Publishers. You can follow her on Twitter at @BrittanyBergs.