How to your prioritize your preferences and maximize life’s most fleeting asset — time

My husband and I streamed “Pretend It’s a City” with the inimitable Fran Liebowitz a few years ago, and she showed us this in episode 3:

“I can’t believe people do it for fun. When I’m in airports and I see people going on vacation, I think, ‘How terrible could your life be? How bad is your normal life that you think you know what would be fun? Let’s get the kids, go to the airport, with thousands of bags, stand in these lines, get yelled at by a bunch of idiots, be late, get crushed all together — and that’s better than our real lives.’”

I laughed at the joke but a little nervously.

As long as I’ve been working, I’ve believed that life is too short to fill it with holiday entitlements. I watched my stepmother work tirelessly throughout her professional life, saving and spending precious vacation days in both relaxing and culturally rich destinations, only to bring her life to an abrupt halt before she could even retire.

Perhaps because I witnessed it, but also because I wanted a choice on the matter, I’ve spent most of my career adhering to the “do something you love and you won’t work a day in your life” theory follow. I stubbornly repeated this truism to myself and to anyone who would listen, even though it didn’t square with my day-to-day work experiences.

I loved what I did on paper. I have worked extensively with non-profit organizations because I believed in mission and giving back. But everyday life? I dreaded it on Sundays. It often kept me up at night. Much of the experience was uncomfortable, from sitting for hours in a stuffy office environment to dealing with people and all their quirks.

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Only recently have I begun to allow myself to examine the fundamentals of my relationship with work and to ask some frightening questions of myself. The questions range from “Am I actually happy in everyday life?” to “If money were no object, how would I use my time and energy?”

I feel secure enough in an externally validated kind of success now in my late 30s to say: I don’t want to sit in front of a glowing laptop most of the time.

I can also see much more clearly that looking back, although I thought I had built a career out of my own will and vision, much of it was bound by explicit and implicit messages throughout my upbringing. These messages came from my family, but also from our broader culture and everything that is permeated by it: school, work, institutions, even the arts.

It’s all about the production.

School was about earning a grade, which added up to a grade point average, culminating in the ability to access higher education and receive financial aid. Work was about earning a paycheck to support myself, yes, but also going to work and clocking in and out was a clear sign that I’ve struggled through adulthood.

There was a way to forge my path within certain parameters and I chose that path. Yes, it was a bright, bright way of building a life. But it was tied to unseen and unexamined expectations and shame at what might happen if I tried to live a life without checking certain boxes.

I graduated. i lived alone I traveled a lot. I did three jobs at the same time; I scrapped and saved. I kept climbing a career ladder; had all the benefits plus some amazing perks. I took out my own mortgage. I earned frequent flyer miles when I flew to work. I chaired meetings. I have visibly succeeded and visibly failed. My phone was exploding with work-related texts all the time, and I felt both irritated and important.

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And then one day, during a particularly stressful time at work, I had a panic attack in my kitchen, and slowly — very slowly — over the months and years that followed, I realized I had to make a change.

One thing I realized: I love being outside. It calms me and grounds me. I want to spend more of my finite time on earth outside, alone but also with people I love.

Thing two: Being creative brings me joy, especially when it’s connected to nature in some way. I love to think and write about the many facets of being outdoors, especially in a way that invites others “in” to nature. I love to focus and paint landscape art, especially in a way that draws attention to everyday beauty.

Thing three: I find great satisfaction and meaning in serving others and means being bigger than myself that gives back and builds people up. As much as I enjoy figuring out how to bring my own perspective to the world, I also have the ability to both curate and assist in making others’ experiences better, or at least smoother. I find it incredibly challenging as well as rewarding to use this skill, and I do so more and more during what most closely resembles traditional “work,” through counseling.

I noticed last weekend that the line between vacation and my real life is becoming more and more blurred over time. I’ve come to a point where I’m gaining more economic freedom, which makes it easier to choose how I want to spend the truly finite resource: time.

So I go outside. I write. I paint. I help people get where they want to go in their meetings. I go for walks and listen to podcasts.

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When I go on vacation, I think about bringing my easel with me. It would be nice to be somewhere else for a while but still doing the things I love to do.

My everyday life is increasingly intersecting with my definition of vacation, where the things I usually do are also the things I want to do on an official break. I think I’m finally allowing myself to not only identify, but to build a life that doesn’t leave me desperate for time to pass.

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