No matter how you choose to fill your time there will be something else you could be doing.  This is the trade-off.  It doesn’t matter if you are enjoying yourself or not, there is always something else that could be occupying your time.

If you are working then you are not playing with your kids.  If you are playing with your kids you are not getting the yard work done.  If you are training you are not relaxing.  There isn’t necessarily a right answer for how you should spend your time but to make the best choice for you it is important to have your priorities in order.

Having a list of priorities is important because it allows us to be able to make quick decisions about how to schedule our time.  These days everybody is busy; we display our packed schedule like a badge of honour.  Our response when someone asks how we are doing is “busy” and it’s a joke to us.  We no longer respond with how we are feeling, rather, we identify by how full our schedule is.

We usually find out that our list of priorities isn’t in order when shit hits the fan and we get stuck, unable to decide how to proceed.  We end up with a bunch of half-finished, half-assed projects surrounding us and start disappointing people.

Steven Covey discussed the concept of putting first things first in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  The habit of putting first things first means to deal with the urgent and important things first.  It’s easy to know what is urgent, or what feels urgent, although it may take some thought to figure out what is important.  The four zones that tasks can fall into and the order they should be prioritized are:

  1. Urgent and Important
  2. Not-urgent but Important
  3. Urgent but Unimportant
  4. Not-urgent and Unimportant

Covey suggests spending most of our time in the second zone: Not-urgent but important.  This ensures that important tasks are completed before they become urgent and helps lower stress levels.  Daily and weekly routines help because we can schedule many of these tasks; spending more time in this area.  Completing zone 2 tasks frees us up for when something comes up that is both urgent and important – something that can’t be ignored.

The biggest deterrents of people spending enough time in the second zone is zones 3 and 4: the unimportant stuff.  This is when we take on tasks that really don’t have any significant effect on our life but seem important at the time and are usually filled with drama.  Another common way to stay out of zone 2 is time wasters like extended Netflix binges and unending scrolling on social media.

I can’t tell you what is important in your life.  Everyone must decide what will have the biggest impacts on their life and what kind of impact their actions will have on others.  It is important to put in the work in areas important to you and be realistic when deciding how much effort can be allotted to each area.  Most people’s priorities can fall into roles in the following categories: family, friend, profession/work, athletics/leisure activities, rest and recovery.  Rest and recovery isn’t necessarily a role but it shouldn’t be ignored regardless of your other roles.

I remember sitting in a team meeting with a coach years ago and him saying something along the lines of “There are three areas that you will want to spend your time in, athletics, social life and academics.  You can only pick two”.  I realized at that point you can’t be world class at everything.  You can only pick a few areas to excel and the rest will be average at best.

This is where the trade-off is.  If you need to dedicate more time to any one area it has to come from somewhere else.  If you work 90 hour weeks then you probably won’t be that elite triathlete or you might start missing your social commitments or isolating yourself to your training partners or worse you’ll burn out because sleep just won’t exist.

Luckily, with things like interval training and some effective coaches out there, fitness does not have to consume your life.  It takes literally minutes per day, not the 10+ hours a week that some high-level masters sports take to train for.  In the grown-up world you can pick from athletics, social and work.

Many people fail to realize that priorities can change, both long term and short term, but they should.  For example, if you have a child, the day they are born they will likely become the urgent and important thing in your life, and for good reason.  Other things that once seemed so important maybe don’t anymore.

Maybe at one point in your life missing a training session was not an option but now you just don’t feel the need to dedicate the same time because you want to spend it with the people around you.  Now there’s a race or event coming up and it would be awesome to make another run at it.  That’s ok.  It’s important, however, to talk to the people that will be effected by your increased dedication to preparation.  Hopefully they will understand your temporary shift in priorities and be able to support you through it.  A structured and realistic plan is also important.

Physical training shouldn’t consume your life but it’s one of those activities that certainly fits into the second zone.   It can provide you with the physical capacity to enjoy so many activities but also to fend off illness and disability due to inactivity.  Training for elite athletics may seem a little more urgent and require a more significant time commitment but training to enjoy a healthy life takes surprisingly little time and far less effort than most believe.  Training for basic fitness may not be urgent but it is important for so many reasons.  Take some time to lay out your roles and prioritize them to make life a lot simpler and stress free but don’t forget to include some time to take care of your health.

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