Tae kwon do, guitar, saxophone, piano, photography, finish carpentry—each of these have one thing in common: they are skills that I wanted to learn, but eventually abandoned. It seems like everybody’s childhood is peppered with a variety of skills that they quit developing as quickly as they started. You may have taken violin lessons for a few months, only to move on to gymnastics because your best friend had signed up, too. Maybe you played basketball for a season or two, only to quit because it seemed like a cool idea to learn how to play the trumpet. All of us know what it’s like to abandon the pursuit of a prior goal because of something else that appeared out of nowhere. We’ve made the classic excuses:
- I was too busy
- It just wasn’t for me
- It got too expensive
If we were honest with ourselves, the reason we often abandon important goals is due to something urgent appearing and crowding out the time of what we previously deemed important. We allow the urgent to crowd out the important. Sadly, growing out of adolescence doesn’t erode this tendency in our lives at all.
Every American is very familiar with the practice of creating “resolutions”, or goals, for each new year. Resolutions vary from losing weight, to paying off debt, to spending more time with family. While a culture of setting goals is beneficial, it’s interesting to me that the culture behind resolutions is also one that has embraced the possibility of abandoning those goals in mid-March. Like a childhood hobby, many adults drop their resolution after a few attacks from what I call urgent distractions. Allow me to give you an example of how urgent distractions crowd out what is important.
For example, the goal of weight loss may include getting up an hour earlier several days a week to exercise. Going to the gym is important. On the other hand, the extra sleep your body demands at 6:00 a.m. is urgent. Saying no to ice cream after dinner is important, but sugar cravings feel so urgent! Time after time, the urgent crowds out the important, and it isn’t long before the number on your scale goes up, rather than down. “Maybe I’ll go on a diet next year!”
Here’s the very real problem we have to face: we have an overwhelming tendency to abandon what’s important in pursuit of things that seem very urgent. This battle of important vs. urgent is what often determines our ability to achieve any worthwhile goal, especially spiritual goals. It’s our tendency to abandon extra time in prayer in favor of getting a head start on a day jam-packed with meetings and tasks. It’s normal for us to abandon time spent reading helpful books because Facebook notifications seem so much more urgent. What man hasn’t fallen prey to abandoning time in the Word to get a head-start on his day at work?
So, what’s the solution? How can you actually arrive at New Year’s Eve 2017 with a list of resolved resolutions? The key is twofold: break your goals down into routines and resist urgent distractions.
BREAK GOALS DOWN INTO ROUTINES
For those of you who’d rather go to the dentist than live by a calendar, I promise this section isn’t going to be all about a written schedule. As much as I’ve benefitted from such a thing, I’m not going to insist that you go the nearest office supply store and buy a Franklin Covey planner. Whether you like or not, we all live by some sort of schedule, regardless if it’s written in a planner or somehow recorded in your mind. There’s a reason you don’t usually agree to have breakfast with your friend on Sunday morning at 10:45, and the reason is that you’ve made it a routine to worship during that slot every week. While you may not live by a schedule in a planner, you probably follow some skeleton of a weekly schedule in your mind that is based upon your weekly routine.
If you think about it long enough, every goal you have is achieved by the sum total of weeks, months, or even years of routine. A father’s goal to be a better family man is achieved by the routine of coming home at night, going to his kids’ games, and regularly dating his wife. The goal to be a better prayer warrior is the result of many weeks and months of a routine to get up early for more time in prayer. The goal of paying off debt is the sum total of years of routine—staying home to have dinner when you could choose to eat at a restaurant. Routines are the foundation for accomplishing any goal.
If you want to achieve your goals, spiritual or otherwise, for 2017, then routines are your best friend. If you want to make progress on your weight loss goal, then it would be wise to make exercise a part of your routine. Find four or five mornings every week that you will dedicate to that routine—no exceptions. No matter what, you will go to the gym Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. If your goal is reading a book each month, then it makes sense to routinely read 30 minutes each night before bed. If your goal is to develop a new skill, set aside a time every week to develop your abilities through classes, online training, or practice. None of these goals will happen by accident; they only happen as the result of weeks and months of routine.
In a perfect world, our routines would never be interrupted. Your plans to go home to spend time with your family would never be interrupted by a last-minute project thrown at you by your boss. You would never miss going to the gym because you got sick, and you would never miss reading time for a long-distance call with your family. But these surprises are a regular part of life, which is why we must live by the next principle as well.
RESIST URGENT DISTRACTIONS
Urgent distractions are plentiful in the 21st century, aren’t they? They show up in our lives constantly—the phone rings, a Facebook notification beeps, a text message buzzes, and a to-do comes to your mind. Urgent distractions aren’t easily ignored: they demand our attention that very moment. And since they seem so demanding, it takes an incredible act of the will to ignore them, doesn’t it? But the way you handle these distractions often makes the difference between failure and success for your New Year’s resolution.
The nation of Israel knew what it was like to give-in to urgent distractions. When they finally had the opportunity to resettle their land after decades in captivity, they knew their most important goal after building the walls around their city was the construction of God’s house—the temple. But the men of Israel became distracted by home improvement projects to make their own houses look better. They slept in house that cried out for urgent attention, so they chose to neglect God’s house. Constructing God’s house was important, but remodeling their own house felt urgent. Thus, God had to send a prophet, Haggai, to get them back on track (Haggai 1:4).
While our goals for 2017 may not directly compare to the goal of building a temple to house God’s presence, we all need to learn from Israel’s mistake to give-in to urgent distractions.
One way to conquer these urgent distractions is to push them aside until the “dead spaces” in your day. Check your Facebook feed while your food is in the microwave at lunch, or while you’re waiting for a load of laundry to dry. Respond to unimportant text messages on your walk across the office, and return your calls on your drive home from work. As you practice resisting urgent distractions, you’ll find that your remaining time is more often spent on what is truly important in your life. Your mind will have a chance to think more deeply on issues that need to be resolved, and you’ll suddenly have more time! Pushing aside urgent distractions will make a huge difference in your ability to focus on what is truly important.
But what if the urgent distraction is also important? What if the phone call is about a matter that needs to be addressed immediately? What if your boss assigns you an emergency project at work that calls for you to drop your current task?
Yes, there are plenty of interruptions in our life that are caused by matters that are both urgent and important. There are times when it wouldn’t be wise to ignore or push those things aside until the end of the day. If an important and urgent matter butts into your schedule, you should take care of it! But just because your day has been interrupted, it doesn’t have to be the downfall of your plan to spend time on what was important.
When an urgent matter interrupts what is important, find a way to reschedule your important task. While a working parent can’t control the interruptions work can cause during family time, they do have control to plan a family outing the next evening! There are phone calls that you can’t ignore, but there is more free time in your day that you could use to make up for lost time. You may have a late night and oversleep your workout routine, but you can make up for it by going to the gym in the afternoon! When the urgent has to take place over the important, make sure you have a plan to reschedule the important.
If you’re like me then you probably have some big, important plans for 2017, but make sure you break those plans down into routine tasks that will eventually become the fiber of your week. When reality strikes and your routine is interrupted, make every effort to preserve those important routines. Resolutions don’t happen quickly; they require long-term discipline to accomplish. As you make a habit of saying “no” to lesser distractions this year, you will truly be freed to say “yes” to the goals you deem to be most important.