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Does prioritizing work?

by Sara Eckel

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On a past episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, actress Jane Lynch said that, at age 33, she transformed her life and became lighter and much happier. Maron asked her what happened.

“I think I dropped stuff,” said Lynch. “I stopped trying to get somewhere … I [used to go] to auditions [saying] ‘I want to do voiceovers! Let me get a voiceover agent! Hey, I want to do this! I want to do commercials! I wonder if I can start doing guest spots on sitcoms.'”

Meditation has certainly helped me “drop stuff” in order to regain focus. When I find myself caught up in any sort of mental churning, I’ll actually tell myself to “drop it”—my internal voice taking the same friendly-but-firm tone I’d use with a dog gnawing on a tennis ball. But even though I meditate, I still sometimes find myself obsessing over resentments and worries, knowing full well that it is a waste of time and energy. I wondered if I could ever reach that Lynch-level of clarity?

I spoke with Baltimore psychotherapist Stephen Clarke, Ph.D, LCPC, about why it’s so hard to stop the mental spinning, even when we know it’s just causing us suffering. He explained that our brains have a natural tendency to go negative—this is what has enabled the human race to survive. For example, when our ancestors were trying to figure out which medicinal plants were beneficial versus poisonous, it was more important to recall a bad reaction than a good one.

Everything I say yes to means saying no to countless other things. That’s not a problem; that’s just reality.

As we spoke, I realized a key source of my mental churning had to do with the numerous requests that were piling up in my inbox—that is, people asking me to do stuff I didn’t want to do. I felt like I was always in reactive mode, fielding different queries and constantly being pulled away from the things I really wanted to be doing.

“We get caught in competing logistics and in doubt, and all of that is spurred on by [the] fear that we are going to do the wrong thing. So fundamental to how to drop everything is how to work with fear,” said Clarke.

To do that, Clarke recommends first getting in touch with the body, since focusing on your physical experience can help ground the mind. “Our body has an intuitive level of knowing what to do and what not to do. If we can stay more with how we feel from a bodily sense, there is a wisdom that is already there,” he said.

Second, get clear on your values: “We constantly feel this pressure from outside that we should be doing something or other, but so often we never figure out what it is what we want to do.”

The solution, he explains, isn’t necessarily to just do whatever you want—sometimes you should visit your cranky great-aunt or take a shift at the community bake sale—but clarifying your values can help you assume these responsibilities because they matter to you, rather than simply because you feel pressured to say yes.

Of course, the challenge is that often times our values clash. I really value the time I spend hiking in the woods with my husband. But I also think it’s important to be engaged in my community, volunteering for the causes that matter to me. In addition, I really want to get cracking on a second book. And have more friends and family visit. Which means I should really clean the house. Oh, and I need to earn a living, too.

And I haven’t even gotten started on the inbox requests.

Clarke suggests asking yourself, “On my deathbed when I reflect on this, will I be happy I did it? Will it make me feel good and make the world a better place?”’

Here, I realize I’ve been looking at the problem backward. I’ve been getting angry and frustrated because my life is full of great options. I could see this as a clash of values, or I could see it as competing goods.

Everything I say yes to means saying no to countless other things. That’s not a problem; that’s just reality. I don’t have time to do everything I want to do. I don’t have time to do everything other people want me to do. But if I dropped the mental anguish I’ve devoted to deciding whether to say yes or no and the guilt and resentment I’ve felt in the aftermath, I’d probably have a lot more time than I think.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Sara Eckel

Sara Eckel is the author of "It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single". She lives, writes and meditates in Kingston, NY.

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