What most people call time management or setting boundaries, I call the work of crossing through little gates.

Gates are moments where we say no to one thing in order to say yes to something else.

Gates don’t always take the shape of doors, however. Sometimes, they look like thresholds, portals, crossroads, moments of truth, healing crises, or emergencies. When I’m approaching a big gate, I sometimes imagine myself walking through a landscape. My gates have looked like mountain cliffs, raging rivers, neverending deserts, grassy fields, and windy roads.

Beside each gate lives a gatekeeper.

In the old stories, gatekeepers appear as mystical beings—three-headed dogs, dragons, and wise teachers.

In reality, the gatekeeper lives within us.

The gatekeeper tells us that to pass, we must pay a price—say no to a request, invest money, end a relationship, turn off our phone, or close the door on an opportunity.

Despite the modern-day trope that we should never give up, sometimes, we are called to let go of a project that is no longer alive or close a chapter that’s no longer ours to write. Despite Christianity’s insistence that anything less than til death do us part is a failure, even callings are not always forever.

In addition to the action we must take to cross through a gate, at each gate, we must also always let go of something internal as well—old stories, behaviors, identities and ways of being that no longer serve us and that hold us back from becoming who we’re called to be now.

This doesn’t mean getting rid of any part of ourselves or becoming a better person. It means including and transcending everything we’ve been until now, becoming more fully ourselves than we’ve ever been before.

When we let go of what no longer serves us to step toward what’s calling us, we begin to embody a new person—a person who shares their ideas, a person who takes care of themself, a person who leads, a person who pauses, a person who says no, a person who says yes.

We live life at the little gates.

Although the big gates captivate our attention—changing jobs, starting an organization, completing a project, going to school, launching a campaign, taking on a new leadership role, having a baby, moving home, undergoing a health procedure—they come only once in a while.

Most great distances are traversed not with one big leap but with many small steps.

We live life at the little gates—small choice points such as deciding whether to go to bed, reduce expenses, dedicate time to a morning practice, have a difficult conversation, speak up at a meeting, sign up for a class, call a legislator, attend a protest, look for a mentor, ask for help, ask someone on a date, say no to a request, or take some other step forward.

It’s at the little gates that we choose our boundaries and decide where we’ll dedicate our time.

And, choosing is often painful. In a world with so much injustice and unmet need, it can hurt to say no, especially when we care deeply about the state of the world or work in a caring profession and are saying no to real-life people with real-life needs. Having to constantly choose between safeguarding our own mental and emotional wellbeing or sacrificing ourselves to care for our communities is an impossibly shitty task.

Of course, there are plenty of practices for mitigating the shittiness and overwhelming ourselves less. But no practice will ameliorate the fact that in late-stage capitalism, most of us must make money to meet our needs and are expected to meet our needs as single people or nuclear families, despite the fact that we’re physiologically designed to thrive in larger groups and communities. And no practice will erase the fact that our choices can feel so small when the world’s problems are so big.

Time management is grief work.

Although most self-help teachers talk about saying no as if we were only letting go of obligations that drain us and things we’d rather not do,

more often, I’ve found that we have to say no to things we wish we could say yes to.

It can hurt to face the reality that there will always be more that we wish we could do than time in which to do it.

It can hurt to say no to others, and it can hurt to say no to ourselves.

Of course it can be cozier to succumb to the belief that just over the horizon, we’ll find more time or that we’ll finally find peace when we finish the current project.

It can be easier to slip into a Victim relationship with time, blaming time itself for not being enough, rather than doing the difficult work of choosing priorities and communicating boundaries.

And, when we’re exhausted, overwhelmed, bombarded with more demands than we could possibly fit into one lifetime, of course we want more time.

But no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, saying no is inescapable.

As much as we might wish we could just wave a magic wand and poof! get more time, none of us mortals have the power to find time as if it were hiding under the couch cushions or make time as if it were an assembly line product.

Our time on this beautiful planet is finite.

We are all going to die, and we all have to choose how we will live our lives.

So, when you find yourself at a gate, uncertain about what to prioritize, I invite you to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What matters most to me now?
  2. What values will I choose to center now?
  3. What needs will I choose to prioritize?
  4. What will I give up to align my life with my values and honor my needs?

Then, choose consciously.

If your choices are not great ones, please don’t try to convince yourself to look on the bright side. It’s not your fault if none of your choices are good ones.

And, also, we reclaim our power when we choose to choose consciously.

Every moment is a choice. Every single moment of our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re choosing to say yes to one thing and no to countless others. We may not be able to live our values or meet our needs perfectly. We will probably need to make sacrifices.

We can react to life unconsciously, allowing the next email or request to dictate our actions. Or, we can stop fighting reality, turn and face our gates, and decide where we will devote our time, attention, and lives, over and over again.

If we choose to disregard our needs at the little gates, we’re apt to go off track and have far more work to do to turn our ships around when we arrive at a big gate. When we choose to honor our needs at the little gates, we are more likely to experience smoother sailing through the big ones. Each time we do our best to honor our needs, we reclaim our agency, align our lives with our values, and grow our power for impact and joy.

May you find freedom at the gates and grace for yourself as you learn to let go.

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