To Do and To Don’t: Creating Margin in Your Life By Knowing What You Don’t Do

I don’t dress up for theme parties, costume parties, or Halloween. I’m not a crafty person and don’t do many DIY projects. I don’t bring in elaborate Valentine’s or make cupcakes for my daughter’s class for birthdays.

And I don’t feel guilty about it.

I know that in order to invest my time, energy, and passion into my deepest values, I have to say no to some things that other people love to do or choose to do. I am creating margin in my life by choosing what to spend my time on. All of this is in line with my belief that you have to you have to take some tasks “off the beam” and learn how to say no for better balance.

We cannot do it all. There is finite time in the day and energy to accomplish everything we want to do. The only way to focus on my top priorities are to know what I am not going to spend my finite time and energy on. In other words, what am I willing to not do in order to do the things I believe in?

The Two Lists

In Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, author Shauna Niequist quotes her mentor saying “It’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.” The result is two lists Shauna creates: “what I do do” and “what I don’t do”.

Writer Brittany L. Bergman calls these two lists “the filled space” and “the white space“. Brittany says, “Just as important as the things I do and prioritize and value are the things I actively choose not to do in order to make room for what I want to be about.”

To encourage and empower you to create your own lists and begin to actively say no, I want to share my two lists with you here:

What I Do Do:

  • Maintain a relationship with God founded on prayer, Bible and devotional reading, church worship, and community. Jesus is the center of my life and gives meaning and purpose to the rest of what I do.
  • Devote myself to my marriage and my husband, being a good partner to him and seeking ways to love and care for him.
  • Strive to be an attuned, involved, responsive and loving mother to my daughter.
  • Build community in my life. It’s important for me to cultivate community through friendships, although I don’t have as much time to invest in them as I did before becoming a mom. I do still try to show up for special events and in times of need.
  • Pursue my passions through work, seeking growth and opportunities that use my skills, empower and challenge others, and spread truth.
  • Make time for self-care. I find that this is the #1 thing most moms let go of, but I fight for it. For me, self-care mostly consists of exercise a couple of times a week, sleeping 8-9 hours a night, and maintaining a Sabbath.
  • Read, learn, write, listen, journal, and continue to pursue personal growth, learn new ideas/skills, and intellectual endeavors.
  • Send cards and buy gifts. I send a card for every birthday to family and close friends. I also do yearly Christmas cards, thank you cards, get well and sympathy cards, wedding and anniversary, new baby and showers, and just thinking of you cards.

What I Don’t Do:

  • As I stated earlier, I don’t make crafts from scratch when I can buy it for less than that. My husband and I used to do some DIY and home improvement projects, but we’ve had to let that go since having our daughter.
  • Shop and eat all organic, locally sourced, in season, healthy meals. My priority for food right now is quick and “reasonably healthy”.
  • Clean and organize on a regular schedule. We don’t have a house cleaner like most dual-career families I know, and we only deep clean when we get around to it.
  • Dress up for theme parties and costume parties. I just don’t enjoy it enough to justify the amount of time and money it takes to dress up.
  • Shop to find something I might need later on or spend a lot of time thrifting and garage sales without a clear purpose. I shop when I need something and mostly online these days.
  • Volunteer for every committee or service opportunity out of guilt or obligation or because I “should” do it or it makes me look good.
  • As I shared in “Off the Beam,” I no longer call friends and stay in touch over the phone. Text and video messaging are what I have space for these days.
  • I don’t throw Pinterest-worthy parties and showers. I enjoy hosting and planning events, but I don’t go all out on food, decorations, and themes.

Creating Margin in Your Life

There is no right or wrong way to make these lists. You might get so much joy and fun out of themed costumes for the whole family for Halloween–that’s great! Likewise, you might not care to send cards for every birthday and Christmas, but that is something I really enjoy.

Our lists will differ because we all have different values and ways we express those values in our lives. What is important is that we are clear on our values and clear about what we won’t do in order to make space for our highest priorities.

Similarly, you might find that your lists change over seasons of your life. The lists I shared with you here have changed some since I first read Bittersweet. When I wrote my first draft about four years ago, I was newly married, working fewer hours than I am now, and didn’t have a child. As I mentioned several times throughout my lists, becoming a mom has changed a lot of my priorities! I’ve had to let go most involvements outside of work, church, and family since becoming a mom. I have less time and energy to invest in hobbies and friends than I used to. Right now my immediate family, my work, and my self-care–which includes my spirituality and my health–are the highest priorities in my life. I reserve the best of my heart, time, and love for the things I value most.

By knowing what I don’t do, I’m able to create margin in my life to invest in what I do do. I don’t have to feel guilty about saying no to every volunteer opportunity or not cleaning my house as often as the magazines say I should. My lists give me clarity about my priorities and make room for what I want my life to be about.

I’ve discovered that the list sets me free. When I’m tempted to go rogue…I come back to both lists and remind myself about the important things: that time is finite, as is energy. And that one day I’ll stand before God and account for what I did with my life. There is work that is only mine to do: a child that is ours to raise, stories that are mine to tell, and friends that are mine to walk with.

-Shauna Niequist in Bittersweet

How can you create margin in your life by knowing what you don’t do? How could your lists guide you and give you permission to say no? Let’s talk in the comments or join the discussion on my social media!

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