What’s Important in My Life

There exists a fine line between well-roundedness and attempting the jack-of-all-trades distinction, only to realize stretching oneself too thin oftentimes results in dropping the ball on something important. Part of self-management means stepping back periodically and evaluating, “what are the most important things in my life right now?”

An alarming trend consumes too many of our high school students: anxiety due to the pressure of being the best at everything to earn acceptance into the college of their choice. Parent and self-imposed expectations exist for high achieving students to juggle 4.0+ GPA’s, stand out in sports or music, take on leadership roles in school clubs, as well as maintain an active social life. These unrealistic expectations hinder students from focusing their energies and excelling in a few carefully selected areas of particular interest or passion. College Board recommends students focus on “depth rather than breadth” when selecting extracurricular activities. Not only high achieving, college-bound students will benefit from evaluating priorities in their lives. My blog post today will focus on one of the most successful lessons I taught in my 8+ years in the health classroom. I believe this activity provides relevance to students of every achievement level; it transcends racial and socioeconomic lines, and we can apply it to our own lives as part of our self-management regimen.

I dedicate an entire lesson to this activity, but reference it regularly throughout my Health 2 course (primarily 10th / 11th grade) and encourage my students to “re-prioritize their lives” every 6 months to refocus themselves. I divided their lives into four categories: People, Material Possessions, Favorite Activities, Dreams/Goals and give students space to write in four examples from their own lives for each of categories (16 important items from their lives). A few instruction notes:

  • Important People category: You can group people (your parents in a single box, siblings in a single box, friends, etc.) I do ask that students identify the person by their names rather than their relationship, which makes it more personal.
  • Material Possessions: This category presents the greatest challenge for many students. I ask them to focus on the sentimental items (family heirlooms, special gifts, etc.) or items they would replace immediately if broken or damaged.
  • Favorite Activities: If you could plan your perfect day, what activities would you make time to include? What makes you feel “alive” when you participate?
  • Goals: Feel free to modify the age (I set it at 20) for longer-term goals.

Once students have their 16 rectangles filled in with important aspects of their lives, I ask them to “Rank” from 1-16 what is the most important item in their life right now (from any of the categories). Write that at the top of your list. Continue this practice until all 16 items have their places identified.

I then pose the following questions to them for rhetorical contemplation:
1. For the people you identified as “most important,” when was the last time you communicated your appreciation to them?
2. Can you envision a scenario (possibly a “Friday or Saturday night” bad decision) that could negatively affect your relationship with these people?
3. Can you envision another bad decision (perhaps DUI car accident) that might inhibit you from participating in your favorite activity again? Are your goals also at risk?
4. Final thought for contemplation: You identified these items as top priorities in your life right now. Protect them. Foster them. Develop them. Invest your time in them. How much time are you wasting on frivolous activities and selfish people in your life that are in no way connected to your priorities? Surround yourself with genuine, supportive people who want to see you succeed and you can accomplish unimaginable feats.

I cannot fully express the magnitude in the classroom at the conclusion of this lesson, the profound reflection, and refocusing amongst the students. Perhaps the reason this activity resonates is that time management ranks among the greatest anxiety-inducing stressors in teenagers’ lives. Rather than attempting to half-heartedly participate in dozens of activities, spreading themselves too thinly and perpetuating a time-management nightmare, teenagers sometimes need reminding (by themselves) about what they value most.

Because self-management is not a skill reserved only for our students, I believe it important that each of us also reflects on our priorities and refocus how we spend our time. As a young, ambitious teacher fresh out of college, I took on far too many obligations outside my teaching: graduate classes, coaching, class council advisor, ski club advisor, chess club advisor, refereeing, training to run a marathon, and several others I probably blocked out over time! I never felt I had enough time to do anything properly and my stress levels suffered terribly. A change needed to occur and it began with a perspective-shift when I realized the freedom that comes with saying “NO” often when people asked me for something that does not align with my priorities.

I began simplifying my life, when my existence turned upside down in March 2019 with a diagnosis of Stage 4 colorectal cancer and a 40% chance of survival. My cancer diagnosis put everything else into perspective and provided me clarity. I re-prioritized my life and focused on my own health, my family, friends, and the relationships I care deeply to continue developing. After a brutal year of cancer treatment, multiple surgeries, and both physical and emotional scars that will last a lifetime, all the cancer is out of my body and nothing new developed. With my health back under control, I plan to use what I learned over the past year and redefine my priorities at this stage in my life. I challenge all of you reading this blog to take 15-30 minutes to contemplate your own life and prioritize what you value most — and then relentlessly pursue those items as passionately as humanly possible!

Ryan Stetler
Health Educator
Quakertown Community High School
2014-15 Pennsylvania Health Teacher of the Year

rstetler@qcsd.org

@RyStetler (New to Twitter)

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