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?


  1. Well, today I’m baking whole wheat flax bread while nursing a sick kid, who roused himself enough to play at a noon-hour piano recital, which I also attended. but I also attended to my paying work. good post, and I’m not one for conveniences and working harder so I can enjoy life. I already have a good life, and I try to enjoy it.

    Comment by Brenda — 28 May 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  2. First let me just say that I can’t wait to see what those fabric bits become.

    Next, I found this post very provoking. I’m spending quite a bit of time these days considering what compels those of us who make things to do it. In many cases it’s true that it would be less expensive (both financially and in hours spent) to purchase the item in question. But we make these sacrifices because we are compelled to create. I’ve heard it said that it’s an outlet. And on some level I agree. Creatively I feel a need to express myself. Also, I feel calmed by keeping my hands busy – my focus is clarified (perhaps one of the only times I actually feel focused). But why? And therein lies my question. I’m not sure the answer matters but I seek it nonetheless. Thank you for your thoughtful insight.

    Comment by Amy — 28 May 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  3. Yesterday this thought passed me by. As a baby all of us have the inclination/the need to learn. We are motivated to learn to control our arms and legs, learn how to walk and talk. A small child always feels the yearning to be ‘big’. At a certain age school starts, oh how we look forward to be that big. Than we start working/learning according to someone elses plan. Some find this easy, others have a hard time. The feeling of I want to be big because than…. stays. We become adolescents and think Oh if I only can start working than I can be my own person. The job is found, argghh the first problems arise because we still have to work within the definition of the jobdescription or plain doing what someone else tells us to do. This cycle continues on and on and on, on all levels.

    Culturally we are told to follow the rules and be unique at the same time, an impossible task. The social structure is that you have to belong to a certain group and follow their rules: watch the right tv-series, buy clothes that fit in their parameters, listen to a particular kind of music, visit the ‘right’ places, talk/think so and so about certain subjects. Surely you can change groups but the list stays the same.

    To me it is no wonder that there are so many self-help books with the subject ‘find yourself again’. We have this need within us (for some it is strong for other just a little tickle) and it is a very difficult job to do because you have to separate yourself from what you are being fed by everything and everyone and take the consequences with it. Convience foods, tv and all the other things offered are there because of someone elses idea/plan and imposed on us by smart marketingstrategies. For the most part these products are not there to help us to become a strong, healthy, unique, well-balanaced person. Mass-production wouldn’t stand a chance if we all decided to nurture ourselves into the person we want to be.

    What has this to do with making things. Everything because no one tells us to make that quilt or to paint that painting in such a color. It gives us a chance to be ourselves/express ourselves while we are doing it and I hope from the bottom of my heart the world will let that happen without interferring (too much).

    A wonderful, very creative weekend too all of you.

    Comment by Elizabeth — 29 May 2009 @ 3:21 am

  4. I recently visited a friend in BC who knew someone in need of quilting advice. This woman had a really neat outlook on life, and after giving her some tips on how to quilt (she’s making a beautiful wedding quilt for her sister, her first quilt ever), she said that the stringing together of fabric squares like you show in your photos reminds her of Tibetan flags. Isn’t that the neatest comparison? I’ve heard “kite-tails”, and that works well for triangles, but anything more rectangular really looks like Tibetan flags, she’s right.

    Now in response to your post/question. I think some of the things we do are priceless, for example why pay someone to walk your dog when it is quality time spent with your dog, watching it run around and have fun and love being with you as opposed to at home, where it might sleep a lot etc. When it comes to things like doing dishes, yes, they’re a chore, but if done the right way (not under pressure, leisurely), I find it quite relaxing. It’s one of those tasks with instant results: dirty dishes –> clean dishes. Much better than, say, dusting, where you hardly see the difference (unless you let it go dusty long enough to really see the dust). Car maintenance… well, I guess I like to have an overview of things concerning me and control my own life, so I want to be sure that the brakes are checked when they’re need to and not entrust my life on the road to someone else who doesn’t quite care about my life as much as I do :)

    And how will I spend my time and energy today? Well, for the first part, I’ll spend it the way I have to to make a living: working. Luckily I generally enjoy my job, so while it may be hard work, it’s not difficult. After that, I’ll spend it the way I’m expected to: cleaning my apartment a bit so that my weekend visitor thinks highly of me as opposed to “what a messy person”. And then (or maybe a little bit earlier.. ;) I’ll spend it the way I really want to today: quilting. I’m close to finishing to major projects, a babyquilt and a large quilt for a friend, and it’s going to be extremely satisfying to put the last stitches into those projects soon. The time I spend doing what I want makes up for the times I spend doing “chores” in the broadest sense of the word. For example, this morning, I had to do all the usual stuff of getting up, washing, not doing the pile of dishes that’s still waiting to be done, making lunch etc, tedious. But I allowed myself to put one, just one, safety pin into the large quilt I’m pinning together right now, and that somehow helped. Like I treated myself to something :) I guess I’m easily pleased, haha!

    Oops, what a looong comment but I guess you get me thinking…


    Comment by Christine — 29 May 2009 @ 5:47 am

  5. My maiin motivation for giving you a comment: Yesterday I landed by coincidence (if there is such) on your blog, can’t remember where from.
    After scrolling through the lasts posts I knew immediatley, that this blog of yours is very special. I’m looking forwards to reading more at different times. Thanks for your effort of sharing!

    To answer your question in short:
    *t*o*d*a*y* I will spent my time and energy in
    putting another dent in tidying up my rooms and office for an hour
    socialising and being together in nature = nurturing my inner self
    sport with them and out there

    I wish you a nice (long? here in Germany it is) weekend

    Comment by Tally — 29 May 2009 @ 10:45 pm

  6. I found your blog today, from Mouse Note Book (in turn from another on my Bloglines), and it seems I landed on exactly the post I needed to! I have been pondering these grand questions myself this weekend (and post my 35th birthday on wednesday), and coincidentally have come to much the same conclusion myself. Certainly your list of current priorities sits flush with my thoughts today! I look forward to getting to know you better through your blog!
    Brightest blessings (despite the cool and the rain outside here today!)

    Comment by Tala — 29 May 2009 @ 11:36 pm

  7. i had a dream about you! you were getting married and your hubby was carrying you in your wedding dress. which is funny because i don’t even know what you look like.

    i know that seems odd, but i think it relates to seeing your turning*turning name in my blackberry inbox in the middle of the night. i have weird dreams :) but your dress was amazing!

    Comment by megan — 30 May 2009 @ 6:29 am

  8. yes! you have articulated all those thoughts in my head as i try to ask and challenge those around me who believe they HAVE to do the things they do no matter how stressful. i was always searching for the right word to use and you have done it, PRIORITIES, exactly. i stand by my priorities even in the face of friends, family, classmates and strangers…those who don’t quite grasp my ways and the whys of how my husband and i live. we like it simple but we’re far from it. the best thing to do is to be truthful and as actualized as we can be. PRIORITIEs…i like that word. thank you!

    Comment by jek — 1 June 2009 @ 8:53 pm

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