Choosing what to have… and what not to have

What do you want out of life? No, really. What do you really want? Then shape your life to give you that.

John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Ellen Koup plays Monopoly with her children Lucy and Nicholas after school in this 2000 file photo. She left her software marketing job to spend more time with her children. You, too, can choose to shape your life and career according to the priorities you define.

Last night, my oldest son and my daughter and I played an hour-long game of tag. By the end of it, we were all worn out. Both kids had collapsed on my lap and we were sitting there, giggling and cooling off from all of the running around. My daughter then gave me a big hug and just laid her head on my shoulder, as she was getting tired. Before long, I had to carry her up to bed, with my son following along retelling some of the great things we had done today.

It was a great evening, an evening that I was able to have because of the choices I’ve made in my life over the past few years. There was no career-related stress running through my life. There was no money-related stress running through it, either. Our children don’t hear their mother and I arguing about money or getting stressed out over it. They know that when they want to play with their mother or their father, we’re pretty much always able to play with them – there’s no “Daddy is too tired tonight” or “Mommy has to work late so we can afford the cell phone bill.”

A few years ago, I sat down and simply asked myself what I wanted from my life. I threw out the lip service I gave to a lot of things that I wanted to tell myself were important, but really weren’t. I also threw out the frivolous things, the stuff that really didn’t matter.

What was left for me was having a low-stress life, having lots of time to spend with my children and my wife, and having an opportunity to write every day.

Those three things became the centerpiece of my life. Because of that, I drove my rusty truck until it was literally falling apart. Because of that, I do things like make my own laundry detergent and clip coupons. I gave up expensive hobbies (like golf) and stopped worrying about acquiring expensive things (like that BMW I thought I always wanted) and I focused instead on paying off debt and creating a career foundation so that I could do what I wanted with my time.

For the last several years, little else has really mattered to me beyond those three things: a low-stress life, a good relationship with my children, and the opportunity to write every day.

Together, they’ve created a life I’m very happy with. I don’t have some of the other things I might have once really wanted, like a nicer house. I had to leave a job that in many ways I cared for very much – but there were elements of it that caused me deep personal stress and it kept me from my dreams of writing.

What things do you want more than anything else in your life? Be honest – don’t pay lip service to the things you think you ought to care about. Ask yourself what you really want out of life, particularly at the end of the day when you’re reflecting on the hours you’ve spent.

(Keep in mind, of course, that you also do have at least a few responsibilities that you’re not going to be able to avoid, but if you study them carefully, those responsibilities are probably less than you think.)

When those answers start to bubble to the surface, ask yourself why you are spending time and energy on anything else in your life. In the end, everything else is really just a distraction from the main things you want in life. Those other things distract your time, your money, your energy, your available stress, your focus.

Throw them out. Take charge of your wallet and your schedule. Pare back to the core things that really matter and build them as strongly as you can.

You’ll never look back. I certainly never have, even though I would have never imagined my life as it is now even five short years ago.

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