I recently joined a Ben Franklin Circle in Washington DC.
In our meeting, we discussed Ben Franklin’s virtue of resolution: “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
Resolution has always sounded a lot like “how to get things done” or “how to improve your follow-through” to me. It wasn’t until I was in the circle that I realized that that’s the wrong take. I offered my own approach in the hopes that it might help others. Perhaps it will help you, too.
Resolution is about doing less. It’s about doing the important things, and deciding what should be let go.
By trade, I am a teacher. By personality, I’m a procrastinator. These two things go together in at least the following way: I learned very early in my career that lesson planning for my whole week never made sense, because by the time that Friday’s lesson rolled around, all of my lessons were off. Some students were farther ahead, others farther behind, and the lesson I’d planned was a total mismatch to what students needed.
So I did the only responsible thing for an adult to do in such circumstances: I totally abandoned responsible advance planning, and got into the habit of waking up very early–around 4 am–to plan my daily lessons. I’ve since joined the dark side (become an administrator) and had three kids, yet that 4:00 AM wake up time hasn’t left me.
That early morning time is precious to me for many reasons, but today I’ll focus on one: because it is my time to decide how to make my day worth living.
I originally got the idea from a sermon. The speaker explained that morning and evening prayers go together: the morning prayer is when we set goals, ask for strength, and prioritize about what matters most. Our evening prayers are our accountability conversations with God: how did I do? What did I miss? How can I do better tomorrow?
Then, a friend mentioned a teaching by Stephen Covey: put first things first. This friend calls it “picking the big rocks” or the most important things. By taking care of the big rocks first, you can make sure you do something of worth in the day.
I have, on my desk at work, a glass picture frame. Most of my coworkers assume that it is a picture of my family, as it is turned toward me so that they can’t see it. It is a present from my wife–but it isn’t a picture at all. My wife, ever thoughtful, put a blank piece of white paper inside the picture frame, and handed me a marker. She magically transformed the picture frame into a dry erase board, where my three big rocks live. They are there until I complete them, and with no small amount of satisfaction, erase them with my finger.
Three is a good number. If one feels a little difficult, I can go on to another, while I mull the difficult one. Three is ambitious enough to keep me focused, but few enough to keep me from being overwhelmed.
Today, my three rocks were to 1) catch a teacher doing something well (she struggled last year, and I was happy to catch her killing a lesson) 2) crack a particularly hard nut-of-a-student (I visited her parents before school, and told them that we wanted to do everything we could to support her) and 3) drink in every second of a hug from my son.
Parenthetically, I’ve never regretted choosing “savor a good experience” as a rock.
Don’t be surprised to find that in picking your big rocks, you’ll always leave behind some sand: when you pick the most important things, you necessarily pick what matters less. To use another metaphor, in picking out the wheat, you leave behind the chaff.
I recently saw a brilliant away message for someone on maternity leave: “I’m out of the office taking care of an adorable new baby, and I have no intention of ruining that feeling by coming back to work with a gazillion emails. If it’s urgent, please email so-and-so. If not, please wait to email me until I’m back!” A proposal along similar lines: if no one notices that you’ve stopped something, you should seriously ask whether the activity was worth it. Train your eye to discriminate between big rocks, small rocks, and sand.
The benefits of prioritizing aren’t just limited to efficiency gains, however. Before writing my big rocks, I was constantly feeling swept away by the urgency of the moment–emails, phone calls, and reports sucked my day dry–of time, but also of meaning. No one has ever told their family, over dinner, that “I did important things today, like send emails!” The big rocks bring meaning, and meaning brings increased motivation, capacity, and self-esteem.
So pick your big rocks, and let the sand slip through your fingers. You’ll be glad you did.