“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” -Annie Dillard
How do you fill your time? When I was first asked this question by a stranger at a dinner party a year ago, it caught me off guard. I was used to answering the much more passive question, So, what do you do? with an automatic answer, a quick one-sentence response (I work at ___, I study ____ at _____ school). This was the first time I had thought about my life, and more specifically, what things it was filled with day-to-day, from the perspective of me playing an active role in deciding what those things were.
How do you fill your own time?
Our attention is precious. What we decide to put our attention towards feeds into what fills our days, which feeds into what fills our lives. The gravity of this is huge—every single day, we are deciding what we allow to occupy space in our minds. It’s the daily things we do that compound upon each other to eventually reflect our lives as a whole. This places incredible ownership on the individual as being a direct participant in their own life. Every person possesses ownership of their attention, but this awareness can be lost under the barrage of overstimulation that exists in modern-day society.
Our world is FULL of things that vie for our attention. Every morning, I open up my phone to a barrage of notifications fighting for brain space from a million different directions. Texts, emails, social media notifications, news articles, weather updates, NYTimes recipes, advertisements, new music alerts—it’s a technological sensory overload. Add on top of this the structures that occupy our time: work, school, relationships, mental and physical care, appointments, hobbies, and you’ve got a full plate of options and only a certain amount of brain space to devote to them. So where do we go from here?
How do we regain ownership of where our attention is going?
Take a step back, and assess. Take space from the things that usually fill your time, and begin to build an awareness around what you’re putting your attention towards and how those things are filling or draining you. Make a list of the things that fill your time every day, and explore each one on a deeper level. Ask yourself, “What are the positives I receive from engaging with this activity? What are the negatives?”
Imagine a big bucket filled to the brim with water. This full bucket represents the total amount of attention you have in a day, and every single thing you direct your attention to drains some of that bucket. It only makes sense to put more attention towards the things that truly fill you, and less attention towards those that don’t.
After taking time to reflect, I found the things I valued as being a higher priority—my work, meaningful relationships, my physical and mental health —were getting shorted by attention going to things that were lower priority—like social media and less-meaningful relationships. Once I built a better awareness of the things that were most important to me, I was better able to redirect the focus of my attention and reduce energy going toward things that were at the lower end of my priority list.
Wake up to how you’re filling your life.
Once we take the space to assess how we fill our time and know what things truly fill us, we’re better able to sift through the overload of stimulation that meets us each day and cut out that which does not matter. This grounding within enables us to make decisions that feel purposeful: aligning our internal needs with external actions.
We won’t always know what things fill us, and that’s okay. Learning to pay attention to how we respond to stimulus is the first step in knowing what truly fills us. The next time you find yourself scrolling through a social media feed, try pausing for a few seconds and taking a brief self-assessment of how you feel. Do the same thing the next time you’re having a conversation with a close friend, or reading a book, or creating something with your hands. Get into the practice of noticing the things that you’re actively giving your attention to.
Find the things that fuel and fill you. Follow those veins and you’ll find your life.
Mary Oliver, a powerful poet who often wrote from the meeting place of self-awareness and the natural world, spoke into it best, “wild sings the bird of the heart in the forests of our lives.” Listen to that bird—listen to that beautiful song that’s so often drowned out by busyness and distraction and the empty stimulants that overload our society, for that song is the life-force of your heart.
Spend your time doing things that truly fill you, and you’ll play an active role in building an intentional life.
About the Author
Rachel Veale is an Instructor for the North Carolina Outward Bound School. With a degree in Electronic Media and Communication from Texas Tech University, Rachel thrives at the intersection of content creation and outdoor spaces. Her go-to road trip snack is black coffee and donut holes. When she isn’t on course, you can find her running down a trail in western NC or chasing golden hour with a camera in hand.
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