This is a question I've been asking myself lately. Perhaps you have been as well. It feels like a natural question to ask since I am at that stage of life where I'm clearly past the half-way point. While some are simply trying to hold on until "retirement" I'm asking how to eliminate retirement from my future plans. I want to use the experience, learning and insight I've gained thus far to continue doing things that matter.
While that sounds inspiring, the reality is that most of life is lived in the realm of the mundane where we are dogged by work hassles, financial pressure, parenting challenges, house maintenance and the ever present relationship problems that we all have to navigate to varying degrees. Finding your purpose and making a difference in the world can easily get buried in the landfill of daily life.
All things are not equal
In addition to doing therapy and writing I periodically teach college courses in psychology. Some students use the traditional yellow highlighter to mark important sections of their textbook for future reference. Occasionally I see a student's textbook with virtually all of a chapter's content marked in yellow highlight. This usually means the student considers everything he's reading to be of high importance and worth remembering. But, if everything is equally important, nothing stands out as being of primary importance. Without an ability to distinguish between the primary, or the most important, from the secondary or less important, there is no effective way to study the material.
The same principle holds true for our lives. If we approach our days as if all of the items on our to-do list are of equal importance and the goal is just to get through the list, we are not separating the primary (what we truly value) from the secondary (the necessary but mundane) parts of life. Living life in the fast lane, which many of us do, makes it very difficult to live by our core values because it leaves little time or energy for reflection on what we are doing and why. Our behavior is largely driven by what we have to do instead of where we want to invest our best energy.
Value-driven behavior is marked by deliberate choices that reflect closely-held values. No one completely escapes the mundane aspects of life. But someone with a value-driven life has clarity about their choices. When you are clear on your core values (such as the people most important to you and the work you are passionate about) it becomes much easier to say yes to certain people and tasks and likewise to opt out of others.
Where are you on the grid of life?
Here's an exercise you can do that may be a bit sobering. On your computer, create a grid that is comprised of 52 small columns wide and 90 rows long. In Word you can do this by inserting a table into your document. Each row represents one year of your life and each column a week in that year. Now, count down the number rows that represent your current age and then find the week you are currently living in. Mark that box with an "X." Now look at all of the boxes above that X. That is how much of your life you've already lived. Now for the sobering part. Examine the number of boxes from the present to age 90 (if you live that long). For me, there are more boxes behind me than before me. And the inevitable question I ask myself: how am I going to use the remaining time I have left?
So, where are you in the grid? Do your daily choices line up with your stated values? If so, how could you leverage your expertise and experience to be even more effective at what you are passionate about as you age? If your values don't line up with how you are choosing to spend your life, what would you like to change?
Relationships are the hub of life
When we clear out the clutter in our lives, it is the relationships we hold close that mean the most to us. You know that, but in the busyness of daily life we can easily take these relationships for granted. Use this exercise as a time to reflect on your most important relationships. Make your stated values line up with how you actually live. Don't just say you value your family, live it out. Pursue your teen, listen more deeply to your spouse, be fully engaged when playing with your toddler, initiate those important conversations you'd like to have with your aging parent. It's not more time that you need; it's clarity of your values combined with deliberate choices. This value-driven lifestyle may lead to fewer items checked off your to-do list but it pays far more than it costs in the long run.