If you’re a goal-oriented person, you know to “keep your eye on the prize”, “learn to say no to things that don’t serve your path”, and “don’t sweat the small stuff.” If you also happen to be someone who cares about others, you know this last one can be the most challenging, but most important to implement. There’s always someone who wants your time and a million little emergencies that can hijack the pursuit of your goals. But sometimes, the small stuff needs to be sweated. Sometimes, someone else’s priorities can turn out to be the very best use of your time.
When Priorities Shift
I am visiting my mother in the U.K. this month. It’s a big chunk of time to be away from my desk, especially with a new book coming out in less than two months, and so I’ve planned several work days to make sure things keep ticking along in my absence. Today was one of those days.
On my list for today was writing a blog post. I’ve had one I’ve been thinking about for a while, about tolerance, open-mindedness, and the importance of moving away from home to get a different perspective on the world. It’s a Very Important Blog Post and I needed to focus to make sure I said what I needed to say. All I needed was a couple of undisturbed hours.
But in the middle of my writing, my mother realized she’d lost her emerald ring, the one given to her by my late stepfather. My mother is almost 85, and while she’s of extraordinarily sound mind, she worries about things to the point of obsession, and it was clear she was worried about the lost ring.
I asked a few questions to prompt her to remember where she might have left it. All she could recall was taking it off, perhaps to wash the dishes, and putting it down somewhere, reminding herself to get it later, but she couldn’t recall where. I knew I would have to stop what I was doing and help her look.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Get on with your work.”
But I couldn’t. Because, now she was afraid it had been knocked off into the trash can, even though that was virtually impossible. I couldn’t “go back to my work” and leave my mother to rummage through the trash and work herself into a frenzy. Begrudgingly, I pushed up from my laptop to mount a search.
How Do You Define “Important” Anyway?
It was while I had my head stuck in the recycling bin, sifting through piles of catalogs and squeezing empty paper bags and envelopes, that I realized: My big important blog post wasn’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. Would my blog post change the world? Always possible, but highly unlikely. Would it affect even one person in a positive way? Perhaps. It’s what we writers always hope for. Would anyone’s life be turned upside down if my Very Important Blog Post didn’t go out this Monday? I knew the answer to all these questions was “no.” A year from now would this blog post that never happened really matter?
But would my Mum’s life be upended if the trash was collected without her ring being found? Maybe. For several days, maybe weeks, she would be sad, angry with herself, wishing she’d tried harder to find the ring, perhaps wishing her daughter wasn’t such a self-important twit that she believed a blog post to be more important than helping her mother find something that was important to her. A year from now, would my mother’s missing ring matter? Perhaps it wouldn’t be the most important thing on her mind, but I think she would still have regrets that the ring had been lost.
So, my Very Important Blog Post didn’t get written this week. But this post was written instead and I gained some perspective about what’s really important to me. A year from now, I believe my work will still be important to me and I intend to keep pursuing my goals. But when it comes to weighing one small work task against one small personal task, I’ll be applying the “year from now” analysis before I decide.
And, in case you were wondering, Mum found her ring, but not in the trash can. She’d dropped it into an old jewelry box in the guest room for safekeeping and forgotten about it. It would have been the last place I’d looked.