Learning to Say No to Things That are Not Your Priority
“The key, however, is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities” ~Stephen R. Covey
My father has a green thumb. Everything he touches comes to life. He acquired his gardening skills in his youth growing up on a big farm. He used to plant and harvest fields of watermelons and vegetables and even bought his first car by selling them. Every time he is at my house, he finds himself drawn to the garden. And if I did not have one, he would make one! Since my husband and I moved a lot – twelve times to be exact, living in six states and four houses – my dad would start a garden even when our yard was the terrace on the 18th floor!
We planted all kids of things together, from vegetables and herbs to fruit trees, evergreens, shrubs and flowers. We even planted a whole row of grape vines, figs, pomegranates, all the common fruits you will find in the region of Montenegro where my parents grew up. My favorite of all of these are figs. They are not only powerful anti-oxidants packed with fiber, calcium, potassium, and other minerals that are good for your health, but they are sweet and satisfying. Fig trees can grow up to 20 feet in height and are generally found everywhere in South East Europe. And, as you can guess, in my yard in Pearland, Texas! However, my fig tree looks more like a wide shrub. It’s only 4 feet tall with many branches coming out of its base, spreading more in its width then height. It produces many figs, but in comparison with the ones I grew up with, these are very small, about an inch and a half long.
One morning, I was walking around my yard, enjoying the fresh air and looking forward to one of these precious fruits, I was mortified to see my dad had pruned my wide fig tree down to nothing! The multiple branches coming out of the base were cut down to only four. This instantly made the tree narrower and scarce, with figs almost gone! Noticing that I was bewildered and upset, my dad started explaining that although the tree might have less figs now, it is was better for it in the long run. The numerous base branches were taking the necessary nutrients and water needed for the tree to grow. Among them were also those dead ones that was weighing the tree down and their removal was necessary to prevent insect & decay organisms from entering the tree. So he trimmed them down to four. This way the tree will grow in height, reaching its full potential, he assured me.
And this is when it dawned on me: I am no different than that tree! I too felt like I wasn’t growing, and that I wasn’t reaching my full potential because I had so many areas in my life that drained my energy. my energy. I felt constantly busy and tired, but unproductive and unfocused. I was running my household with all the shopping, cleaning, cooking, washing, folding, and homework duties, and I was also running my business, traveling, and serving with three non-profit organizations. For two of those organizations, I served as a board member, and I helped organize and host as an MC for two of their galas as well. The third one was HRH Crown Princes Katherine of Serbia’s foundation Lifeline, serving as her humanitarian liaison in the US, establishing new relationships between Serbian and American medical institutions in hopes of improving poor Serbian health care for women who have the highest mortality rate in breast cancer in Europe.
There were weeks when I would volunteer over 20 hours a week. And there simply seemed like there was not enough time for everything I wanted to do. My family was the first one to suffer my frequent absence, and I am not only talking physical. I extended my working hours through our family dinners, finding myself working way past midnight. At first, everything seemed exciting and noble, but after a while I found myself exhausted, frantic and frustrated. I was impatient with the kids and short with my husband. My relationship with my young teenager son was almost non- existent. There were days when I wouldn’t even stop and talk to him. He too stopped talking to me. The only time I was “talking” to him was when I was barking orders at him or pointing out the things he didn’t do right.
As he would enter the door from the school I would raise my tone of voice and ask all these probing questions “Is that where your shoes go? How could you leave q-tips in a toilet bowl this morning? Why can’t you remember to pick up your dirty underwear after you shower? How come you forgot your gym clothes again? How many times did I tell you not to return an empty milk cart in the fridge? How long will you be wearing that ripped sweater? Did you forget to take your homework again?” It wasn’t much longer after that I was asked to visit his academic advisor and discuss a few concerns regarding his recent behavior. What now, I thought? I felt angry that I had to even go. Then I heard how our son skips lunches to avoid kids by pretending to sleep on a bench, hiding under his hoody or standing in the bathroom during the recess hiding from everyone. He would even miss gym classes, embarrassed because he couldn’t play basketball or soccer. I guess his dad and I were too busy working that we forgot about that.
It appears that I disregarded my intuition that something was going wrong for my son by assuming that it was because we moved to a new city (Boston) and new school with a different culture than he was used to in Houston. I was hoping he would eventually acclimate, but I was wrong. It was getting worse, and I was too busy to see it since I was saving the world, but in the process I was losing touch with my own son.
And it was during one of my humanitarian visits to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute—where I incidentally successfully got the president to agree to help Serbia’s cancer clinics with a new collaboration—that I had an epiphany. I found myself in the cafeteria eating alone. I noticed a woman approaching, pushing a wheelchair with her teenage son in it. What caught my attention was the football helmet he was wearing. As I watched them settle next to me, I noticed how the boy would jerk his head from side to side uncontrollably. I watched the mother as she patiently attempted to spoon feed her son between his sudden head movements. She did not seem frustrated, but rather calm and kind.
As I imagined how this mother must have sacrificed everything, including her career, her relationships, her hopes and dreams to tend to her child all day long, tears started rolling down my face. All of a sudden, I felt this deep shame and guilt. I thought to myself, I have a healthy son that can walk, talk and express his emotions, shame on me for not accepting and loving him the way he is. Shame on me for always criticizing him and for setting him up to fail by raising the bar too high. Shame on me for not communicating with him. But most importantly, shame on me for not really knowing him. Not knowing what he likes, what his fears are, who his friends are, and what’s going on inside of his young teenage mind. I couldn’t wait to go home and hug him. That day was my turning point. What good is it if I save the whole world and lose my own son?
From then on I made some drastic changes in my life. I decided that every time when he enters that door from school I would get up and greet him with a smile and a kiss instead of delivering angry commands. And the first day I did that he did not hug me back. He did not say a word, he just went to his room. But, that was okay, since I promised myself that I would be patient and kind to him. I would point out the things he was doing well. I would ask him what he wanted for dinner instead of just asking my younger son. I would learn to ask different kinds of questions that provoke discussion rather than yes or no answers. I would ask questions like “What was the most exciting thing that happened today?” (and thus focus on the positive). The first few weeks he did not talk much, nor did he hug me back, but the day he raised his arms and hugged me back, I cried. Soon after, he started talking more with me, and opening up to tell me all about his struggles at school. And oh boy, were we wrong in all of the assumptions we had made. That’s a lesson all in itself that I will leave for later chapters.
But that wasn’t where I stopped. In fact, that was the beginning of my journey to become a more mindful person. I sat down and wrote the top 4 things that I felt were my priorities. I realized when I listed family (my sons and husband) I was writing that because I believed it, but my actions and the time I was spending with my family were telling a different story. Once I listed all four priorities, I realized how many things I say yes to that do not support my four core priorities. I realized that serving on the first two boards did not bring any value to my life, only stress and guilt that I wasn’t doing as much as I could. I wasn’t even passionate about those particular causes! And in each case, I had been asked to join the board, and didn’t have the courage to say “No.”
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” - Brene Brown
That day, I resigned from the two boards. The third one I kept because I was passionate about the cause and Princess Katharine was becoming like a mother to me. And just like a mother, she would call me at any time she felt like it and demand help. But I also came to the realization that I had not set any boundaries with her. So, I called her and told her that from now on, she should only call me at certain hours that wouldn’t interfere with my family time, and I could only give her 10 hours a week. I had to pay attention to my family first. As for my other priorities, like spiritual well being, I decided to dedicate more time to my personal growth and learn how to become more patient, mindful and to love unconditionally, without judgment. And I haven’t stopped since. The fact that you are reading this manual is the result of my journey back to my heart. I hope you too will benefit from this search and ask yourself the same questions I once asked myself and return to frequently.
Here they are:
What are the areas in your life that drain your energy and bring no value in your life? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What are your four core priorities (branches) that give your life meaning?____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Why are they important to you? What value do they bring to your life? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In the book, First Thing First, the authors point out that “urgent” and “important” things aren’t the same. Unfortunately, most of us choose urgent which gives us the adrenaline rush, making us energized and feel important. But urgent doesn’t imply productive and only makes us feel busy. And when we focus on urgency, we have less time for what is really important. As my business consultant would warn me, “Don’t be busy to be busy. Do things that bring value.” The authors state four basic priorities we all tend to yearn for that are necessary for our well-being.
1. The physical need: The need to live. It means to have good health, food and shelter.
2. The mental need: The need to learn. It means being intellectually stimulated.
3. The spiritual need: The need to leave a legacy. It means to have a sense of purpose.
4. The social need: The need to love and belong. It means having people you trust and care for.
Assignment: For a week, tally what percentage of your time goes to each of your four core values. I know I was shocked to find out how little of my time went to those categories that I thought were my priorities. From then on, when asked to participate in some new activity, I asked myself the question: “Does this support one of my four priorities?” Once you have a clearer picture of where your time goes, ask yourself: “What can I get rid of in my life that brings no value to my life or sucks my energy?” List the things that you say yes to that do not support one of your four priorities.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Now get rid of them and feel the liberation and relief that comes from that act!