Deciding to make your own well-being a priority seems like a simple thing, but it can be one of the hardest commitments we ever make. Changing years of ingrained behaviors of putting others first and fitting ourselves in somewhere down the line takes time. Just like weight loss, it is not a switch we can flip and make everything perfect overnight. But just like losing weight, there are tools and methods that help to create sustainable changes.
As I have previously discussed, the first step is to list the top five priorities in your life. The things that mean the most to you and have the most impact on how you feel at the end of each day. Once you have that list, you have a blueprint to help create days filled with meaning rather than just filled with errands.
After defining your top five personal values, the second step involves deciding if your daily actions match those values. If you find your days are spent supporting and furthering the things that are important to you, congratulations. In fact, you can stop reading because you probably are already very happy with your life. But what do you do if you find the way you spend your time does not support your priorities? If you end each day feeling drained and tired? How can you begin to make course corrections to put you back on track to a more satisfying and fulfilling lifestyle?
One of the simplest ways to start making your well-being a priority also happens to be the most difficult for many people. It is one of most powerful tools we have to protect ourselves and yet is seldom used. If you want to make yourself a priority and create a life filled with positive choices and outcomes, you must control your time by learning how to say no. Let’s be honest, most of us spend a lot of time doing things we don’t want to do, simply because someone else asked us to. Some of us also fill the day with trivial errands as a way to avoid focusing on the bigger issues which naturally make us nervous.
It seems like saying no should be an easy choice, but it never is. From an early age we find agreeing to do something is a good way to make friends. If we put ourselves last, we can avoid conflict and keeping other people happy. It may seem like a good idea at the time, but it becomes a difficult habit to break once ingrained. When we reach middle school peer pressure is overwhelming. We need to fit in –to be part of the pubescent pack. In order to do so, we must go along with the crowd and certainly not make waves. Instead of learning how to do what is most important for our own happiness, we convince ourselves being accepted and liked will create all the fulfillment we need.
The pattern continues as we grow into adulthood. The difference is the stakes become higher and the players more important. Our bosses, our spouses, and our children all come before ourselves. We fill our time meeting their needs and leaving our own unattended, Now, I know there will be a lot of pushback from people, especially parents, who will say their children, or boss, or spouse, have to come first. However, if the children, or the boss, or the spouse, always come first eventually a slow sense of resentment will begin to build. Learning to say no and control your own schedule is one way to prevent that resentment from forming.
What happens when you begin to say no and match your actions to your values? One of the first things you will notice is an increase in productivity. All that time you have filled meeting other people’s needs can be refocused on what you find important. You can focus on your own goals and ways to achieve them more quickly. When you spend quality time on your own priorities, you free up more time to help those around you, so it is a winning situation for all involved.
You will also find that you have more energy. When our days are filled doing things we don’t really want to do, whether at work or at home, we can’t help but become resentful. To be honest, harboring resentment steals enormous amounts of energy. If you free yourself from those things you resent, your energy levels increase and you can turn that energy toward more important matters. Instead of baking cookies for the school fundraiser, perhaps you can make a donation. You are still supporting the cause, but it isn’t taking time away from other things you would rather pursue. You can spend the extra time and energy on something that brings you a real sense of accomplishment.
When you begin to practice this method of self-care, protecting your time and schedule by saying no, you will inevitably run into barriers. One the strongest will most likely be your concern about what others will think. If you say no to baking cookies by offering to make a donation, you may be worried others will think you are not a committed parent. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are very committed to your children, but realize that your time could be better spent helping your kids with homework instead of baking cookies. You aren’t letting the other parents down. You are simply fulfilling your needs and your children’s needs, along with the other parents’ needs in a way that benefits everyone involved.
Another barrier you may run into is negative self-talk. We will talk more about this in greater detail later, but often we use negative conversations in our head to keep us from going after what we would really love to create. It is a self-sabotage mechanism meant to keep us safe, but it just keeps us paralyzed and resentful. By recognizing negative self-talk and putting the opinions of others in proper perspective, we make sure we focus our time and energy on our top five priorities.
Once you begin to protect your time by declining to do things simply because others ask you, you may also experience a noticeable drop in your stress level. This is one of the best benefits of taking control of your schedule. When we place such a large emphasis on pleasing others, we create large amounts of stress in our daily lives. It takes a toll on our time and energy. That added stress is even more dangerous since it can have a negative effect on our physical and mental health. When we allow ourselves to believe that we must be our own first priority, we lose the resentment and guilt that comes from continually trying to please others in our lives.
Of course, many people may feel that choosing not to accept every invitation or request is selfish or inconsiderate. Nothing could be further from the truth. By being selective in what you agree to do, you become more productive. When you are more productive, you spend less time on unimportant issues and thus free up time to support others when necessary. Not only that, because you haven’t drained all your energy slogging through your day you may become more creative and innovative. With more time and energy available, you can be more helpful to the causes and the people who matter the most to you. Your children might even notice a difference in your attitude when helping with their homework. When you are happier with what you have accomplished during the day, you have much more patience to help with that crazy new math problem.
For most of us, learning to say no when asked to do something we would rather not is a very difficult task. It is so much easier to agree and slowly simmer in resentment as we try to make good on our commitment. At some point, however, we must realize that disappointing someone else is less important that continually disappointing ourselves. Saying no–and understanding the importance of why we must say it–is one of the fundamental ways we can make certain we never reach our breaking point.