Prioritizing Beyond Work

To keep work in its place, envision your priorities holistically

Nicole Peeler


Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Our lives are inundated with people selling us ways to be as productive as possible. Planners, podcasts, and life coaches often have the same message: you, too, can be a veritable machine of productivity, and we’ll teach you how for this low price.

They’re not lying. There are, indeed, better and worse ways to organize ourselves, and there are very different ways we should approach each day depending on our inner workings.

But what worries me is that, as this pandemic has taught us, work can be ceaseless in a world undefined by the office. In other words, when we can (and have to) work from home, we must develop sharp boundaries around when work begins and ends, and what we give of ourselves to our careers each day.

In many way, as a society we still think of work in terms of the kind of factory shift that was created by and for the industrial revolution. That way of thinking about work defines it as continuous if finite — as having to be in one place making the widget — and endlessly replicable within that time frame (meaning that the time between when I punch in and punch out is the right amount of time, with breaks, for me to press the button that makes the widget over and over without loss of quality control).

However, very few of us do that sort of shift work anymore. In my case, I am a professor and I am a writer. Both are jobs that require little physical energy, but tons of mental energy. My mental acuity, meanwhile, is finite. I have only so much mental energy that I can give to grading, or writing, or revising. When that’s sapped, it’s sapped. Yes, I can do less mentally strenuous activities after that (like organizing my files or cleaning my office), but there’s not a ton of activities I do that don’t tax my little grey cells.

My point is that, many of us approach our planner or to-do list as if it were all encompassing. We write down everything we need to get done, and then we start going down the list, adding to it as things come up. And because we’ve got this ingrained sense of work as shift-work, as a set time in which we work or do not work irrespective of what we actually have to get done (as the list is endless), we try to do as…