As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more picky about how I spend my time. I spent my first 21 years doing things I thought I wanted: taking dense course-loads, working mind-numbing internships, and spending time with halfway friends. Of all my commitments, few genuinely lit me up inside. Most were voluntary “responsibilities” - Clutter - that I thought would advance my career or get me one step ahead in the world. (What I was racing towards, I’m not sure. I hadn’t yet realized that life was not a race.)
After a while, I burned out. I was sick of working toward goals that morphed into something grander the moment they came within my reach. I realized that I had a choice: I could spend my life robotically trying to achieve a nameless “something greater,” or I could become a trailblazer and intentionally design my life for present-moment happiness. (You can imagine which one I picked!)
I felt like I was waking up from a trance. For the first time, I was giving myself permission to declutter my schedule and design my life on my own terms.
Decluttering my life has been a constant learning process. In a culture that rewards non-stop motion and falling in line, sometimes we forget that we have deciding power over how we spend our time. It's as important for us to declutter our mental space as it is to declutter our physical space - our closets, our bedrooms, our backpacks, and beyond - so every six months, to keep my priorities aligned with my values, I like to take a step back and declutter my life with my Life Jar. Here's how:
Like any container, your Life Jar has finite volume. It can only accommodate so many items. At first, it’s empty. Pure. Infinite possibilities. You can fill this jar with anything you want.
On slips of paper, write down how you spend your time - one activity per slip of paper. On the other side of each paper, write down three ways the activity makes you feel, e.g. confident, bored, happy, lonely.
Do this part slowly. It offers a reality check by giving you a complete picture of how you choose to feel, day in and day out. (For example, even if an activity like “Volunteer at The Board Meeting” is symbolically rewarding by giving you a sense of importance, perhaps it makes you feel tired and stressed in the moment. Be honest with yourself as you jot down your feeling-words.)
Concretely adding these slips of paper to your Life Jar will remind you that adding people, careers, habits, and activities to your life is an actionable, intentional process. Add your activities to your Life Jar in three steps:
Step One: The Soulfood
Begin by adding the Soulfood: the activities you love without question. My Soulfood includes hanging out with my best friends in the world; journaling in the morning, which grounds and restores me; and drinking coffee, my favorite vice.
Watch as your Life Jar becomes filled with feel-good activities and the nourishing feelings associated with them: energized, creative, spiritual, wholesome. When you finish Step One, your Life Jar is a proud utopia.
Step Two: The Requirements
Of course, life isn’t always utopian. Step Two brings you back to reality as you add The Requirements: the activities that don’t make you feel amazing, but are absolute obligations. This is when you might add the job that doesn’t rock but pays the bills for now, or the relationship with a frustrating family member.
Notice how you feel as you add your Requirements, one by one, to your Life Jar. You may experience waves of reluctance or peaceful resignation. You may notice that adding certain activities to your Life Jar makes you question their necessity. Occasionally, you may ask yourself - “Do I really need this activity, and the corresponding feelings, in my Life Jar? Is there an alternative to this?”
If you can imagine an alternative to a Requirement, it’s not a Requirement! Leave out that slip of paper as you move on to Step Three.
Step Three: The Clutter
This is where the rubber meets the road. Your remaining slips of paper are Clutter: leftover hobbies, habits, or friends that don’t make you feel amazing and are not absolutely necessary. (The last time I did this exercise, this list included a few halfway friends, two volunteer commitments, and dating apps.)
Assess your Clutter. Think long and hard before you drop these slips of paper into your Life Jar. Do you really want to include these activities and their associated feelings?
Because here’s the secret: You don’t have to. You can declutter your life to make room for more Soulfood. You can prioritize actives that make you feel 100% incredible in the present moment.
If you’re anything like me, the first time you do this exercise, you’ll have a ton of Clutter. Why do we fill our Life Jars with activities like this - with activities that aren't nourishing? Maybe because guilt and obligation play a disproportionate role in our lives. Maybe because our culture has taught us to postpone genuine happiness for symbolic happiness, like wealth, status, or power. Maybe because we don’t believe other options are available to us.
Or maybe because we’re afraid to believe that we deserve something more. Maybe we're afraid to become trailblazers are leave footprints in uncharted territory.
At first, the thought of scrapping all of your Clutter might be scary. Every time you do this exercise, I challenge you to permanently leave one scrap of Clutter out of your Life Jar. This simple act is a courageous statement of self-love as you clear space for something greater.
Perhaps you decide to replace this activity with a something that lights you up in the present moment. Or perhaps you don’t replace it at all and instead leave your Life Jar simple, with an abundance of white space for peace and relaxation. Allow yourself to tune in to your own intrinsic creativity and curiosity as you contemplate: “Now that I have this newfound space, what do I really want? How can I design my life for happiness?”
Your Life Jar
When you’ve completed your Life Jar, keep it somewhere visible as a constant reminder that you have deciding power over how you fill your time. When you’re presented with a new opportunity, imagine yourself adding that activity to your Life Jar, and notice how it makes you feel. Excited? Apprehensive? Ambivalent? Remember: There are always opportunities, big or small, for us to tweak and redesign our lives to get them closer to the nourishing, feel-good experiences we hope them to be.