Important Things First

How to live fully when life feels too full

“I feel like we’re playing hooky from our businesses!” 

My husband’s joyful exclamation had me turning to see his wider-than-life grin in the afternoon sun. Drawing in a deep breath, I took in the scene: snowcapped mountains around us, blue skies above us and fresh snow under our feet. “You know, I feel the exact same way,” I said. It was early Friday afternoon, and we were doing a five-mile backpacking and skiing trip to a forest service cabin for a three-day adventure in Montana’s Elkhorn Mountains.

I felt so grateful to be outside enjoying this moment during a “work week.” My mind flashed back to 23 years ago when I skipped high school and spent a sunny, late spring day cruising around with my girlfriends. When I returned to school, I brought with me a forged note from my dad stating, “Please excuse Leslie from her missed day at school as she was taking care of her sick grandmother.” 

As fate would have it, something about the letter seemed highly suspect to the principal. Was it the mention of a grandmother who lived two states away? Or was it my neat cursive handwriting that revealed the note’s true origin? I’ll certainly never know. But I spent the last day of my senior year serving detention as a result.

In the present, not only did it feel invigorating to ski through the mountains, but this time, there were no consequences to be had. I was so thankful my husband and I had taken the time earlier in the year to identify and block out our weekend trips.

In his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey shares his classic story about the concept of “putting first things first.” A time management instructor was speaking to a group of workshop participants. On the table in front of him was a wide-mouth gallon jar with a pile of fist-sized rocks beside it. He took the rocks and carefully placed each one in the jar until it was filled. He then asked the group if they thought the jar was filled to capacity. Everyone in the group nodded their heads in agreement; yes, it was plain to see the jar was full.

The instructor then pulled out a bowl of gravel from under the table and poured it into the jar. Once again, he asked, “Is it full now?” At this point, the class was beginning to catch on. “No!” they yelled. He then pulled out a small sack of sand and poured it into the jar and asked, “Is it full now?” Without waiting for their response, he leaned down, picked up a pitcher of water from under the table and filled the jar.

“What’s the point of this demonstration?” he asked the group. “The point is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

At the beginning of the year, my husband and I purposefully blocked out three-day weekends on our calendars for shared rich experiences.

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We had no idea what we were going to do with that time, but by simply marking it, we were putting our big rocks in first. Otherwise, we knew we would get busy with work, errands, projects, family obligations or other countless things.

Once we arrived at the cabin, time seemed to stand still. It felt like we had skied into a life where busy schedules ceased to exist. We spent the weekend doing simple chores — chopping wood and hauling water from the creek or taking long hikes where we enjoyed snacks, views and each other’s company.

I felt like we were kids again on summer vacation. Our minds weren’t busy thinking and planning. There were no concerns or worries — just pure presence and joy.

We put first things first. We made a conscious decision to organize our busy lives around our value of spending time together.”

Leslie Cunningham

They say you can’t stop time, but I disagree. Time stood still for three glorious days because we put first things first. We made a conscious decision to organize our busy lives around our value of spending time together. Because of this, we returned feeling revitalized and refreshed — with memories we wouldn’t trade for the world.

Try it for yourself

Here are a few steps you can take to help you prioritize:

  1. Take a moment to close your eyes, get quiet and ask yourself who you feel a desire to spend quality time with. Is it your partner, children (or a particular child), family member, friend or yourself?
  2. Imagine what kind of experience you would like to have. Allow yourself to have fun with this — what ideas come to mind? Know that it doesn’t have to involve a lot of time. It could be as simple as grabbing tea or coffee, going for a walk or making dinner together.
  3. Talk to that person, mark a date and block the time off on your calendar. Even if you’re not sure what you’re going to do, pick a time and date anyway. This is what it means to put the big rocks in first.