What to do: Set your priorities

Mal | Art Process and Creativity | Thursday, May 28th, 2009

On the fence 3

When I wrote my About page, I laid out out my intention for this blog.

This is not a blog about one particular medium or another. This is not an assembly line of amazing and flawless creations. This is not a business site designed to promote a book or a business or a product. This is a place for exploring, discussing, and considering the creative process — the power of making — and its place in modern life.

In recent weeks, you’ve seen me trying to puzzle through this business of modern life and how to fit creativity into it. But what exactly do I mean? What is modern life and why is it so difficult to make time for making?

I guess by “modern life” I mean this whole fast-paced thing — this overscheduled, overcrowded, convenience-driven attitude that is popular in our culture.

On the rail 1

In the old days, people created because they had to. Women quilted because their families needed warmth. They baked because their families needed food. Men fashioned their tools and laid out their farms so that they could eat. Women cared for children, men cared for plants and livestock. All were involved in the slow, steady work of nurturing life, and of making things, and of getting through.

Nowadays, why cook when we can pick something up at the drive-thru window? Why make blankets when we can buy them at Wal-mart for $3 a pop? It takes so much time to cook, to quilt, to paint or string beads or write poetry. Why labor over a hand-bound book, a tile mosaic, or a plein air painting when you can so cheaply pay someone else to do it? Paying will surely free up our time. But what do we do with that time? Well, a lot of us work harder to earn more money so we can pay for more conveniences.

Turquoise in tree

Money will buy time. If I could pay someone to do my laundry for me instead of sitting in the laundromat for 3 hours a week — to do my cooking and cleaning, my car maintenance, and my dog walking for me — why, I could travel the world with my sketchbooks and do nothing but create. But, the only way for me to have funds to pay for convenience is to work more. Working more means less free time. That must not be the solution.

As it stands, you and I and everyone make small decisions every day. For the most part, we give time to those things that are important to us. I say “for the most part” because if we are going through our days without examining our priorities, it’s very easy to fall into some cultural traps. How much time do I spend watching television? And why? Is watching television important to me? Well, no. Not really. But culturally, it is the popular thing to do. It is an easy thing to do. It is a fairly brainless thing to do. It lulls me into thinking I have done something. (Hint: I haven’t.)

On the fence 6

If I wish to dedicate more time to things that are important to me, I first have to know what those things are. I have to set my priorities according to my values and be prepared to make decisions every day — every hour — to keep myself in line with those priorities.

One of my values is a core belief that making things enhances and improves my life. I have worked this year to make making a priority in my own life, and not just in the lives of my art therapy clients and patients. And so, even when I’m tired, or have had a long day at work, or am being jostled about on the subway, I try to make something. When I am upset or sad or sick, I try to make something. When I am happy, excited, or anxious, I make. Making is my priority.

In the tree 1

I’m not a self-help author. There are plenty of people out there who want to tell you how to set your priorities. I’m not going to give you a numbered list of steps or suggestions for what your priorities should be. But, here is what has worked for me:

  • I separate my values from my priorities. Values are things I believe. Priorities are things I do. They are the areas where I choose put my time and energy. Knowing my values helps me set my priorities. Priorities are my filtering system. They help me organize my time so that I can live a life in line with my values. Is that circular enough for you?
  • I try to limit my list of personal values, priorities, and such to only 3-5 at a time. That’s not to say that I only believe in 3-5 things, just that I don’t want to actively be working on more than 3-5 areas at a time. More than this just gets overwhelming and probably sets me up for failure. I don’t like failure.
  • My list is always in flux. What is important to me today may not be as important tomorrow, so it’s important to revisit it frequently. If I were to have children, for instance, this list would be likely to change.

I’m currently in the process of re-examining my list of values and priorities. Certain things have become less important to me and are being jettisoned. Others are making a re-appearance. Here is my current list of priorities — the places where I am trying to spend time:

  • Health
  • Creativity
  • Prosperity
  • Relationships

What about you? What are your values? Your priorities? Where will you spend your time and energy today?

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