Contextualizing Priorities: A Page from a Man's Playbook
A BRIEF NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR'S WIFE:
Ladies, have you ever been in the middle of ALL the things when you find yourself exasperated because your significant other is totally and completely calm? This happens...41 times a week at our house. And while we all love a good fight in the middle of a stressful situation (you know, the one that erupts when you shout, "stop being so calm and help me!"), what if I could tell you why your man is so nonplussed and help you reach a slightly more zen place yourself? Once I realized arguing about our differences wasn't going to accomplish much, I asked Paul why he was so calm in those moments. Did he not see all the stress? All the pieces? Did he just not care? Come to find out, there's a real biologicalish reason for his delayed response, and there are some skills that I can learn to implement in those moments to keep my blood pressure down. So, today, Paul is going to explain some of this process for us. Hope it's equally helpful for you!
Warning: Generalizations to Follow
Okay, now that that's out of the way, permit me to make a couple of general observations. On average, women have a significantly less compartmentalized process of receiving, storing, and retrieving information than their male counterparts. There are a few metaphors for these dynamics that have floated around for years: waffles and spaghetti, boxes and wires. We here at NEB Ministries are partial to boxes and wires, but you do you. In either case, the point is that a woman's brain is a complex and inextricable weave of ideas, emotions, memories, expectations, values, and desires. Each one connects to a dozen more at a variety of different focus points, and each of those connects to more and more and more until a woman's identity is significantly more easily understood as a whole than as the sum of constituent parts. Moms don't stop being moms when they go to work, and wives don't stop being wives when they go to the gym. It's all connected and it'd take Tom Cruise and the rest of the Impossible Mission Force to successfully disconnect it.
Now, there are a great many upsides to this dynamic. For example, women tend to have sharper memories than men, owing in part to the fact that there are so many paths, so to speak, to a single memory. However, there are a couple of drawbacks, and one we've seen is particularly detrimental to the mental and emotional health of women as they navigate the world.
Women struggle to contextualize their priorities.
Now, it just so happens that men are, in general, pretty excellent at this. While we may not all agree, both man to man and man to woman, about how exactly the priorities end up being ordered, nevertheless it's true that a man can pull the parenting box from his shelf along with his workplace box and hold them up, side by side, and determine which he feels like should weigh more heavily on his mind and demand more of his time and energy at that particular moment. Men can do this in succession with all of their priorities: romantic relationships, friendships, family, kids, work tasks, household responsibilities, food, sex, rest, leisure activities, and order their steps accordingly. On the other hand, it doesn't even occur to most women to do this. All of their priorities present themselves equally and at once, all demanding energy and attention and none relenting to another. Your boss is on the phone while your boiling noodles for dinner while the dog needs to go out and your daughter wants to know why boys have nipples and on and on and on. It's an overwhelming prospect. It's at the heart of those days when it feels like there's nobody who doesn't need something from you.
There's something that men have, a tool that we've been uniquely gifted with that makes this kind of situation a little easier to deal with. It's called the Nothing Box. It's the only empty box in a man's brain, and he can pull it out at any time, go inside, and think about absolutely nothing. It's kind of amazing. Sadly, this box is overused and abused by many men, but that's a separate issue, and I'm not necessarily advocating for women to build themselves their own Nothing Boxes (only because I'm not sure that it's possible. If you can, go for it!). However, I do think that women can take advantage of how men tend to use the Nothing Box in this situation. The Nothing Box represents two things. The first is a pause, however brief, that gives space from which the other boxes can then be considered. Even if you can't make all the priorities go away, it is possible to push them back long enough and far enough to grab them one at a time and order them by immediacy. And that's the second thing that a Nothing Box represents: the now. You can't be in the Nothing Box in the future. There's not a lot of purpose in opening the Nothing Box just to think about when you're going to rummage around it in later. It only works in the moment.
Part of what makes it so difficult for women to contextualize their priorities is that women see the long game better than men, so whatever is going to be a priority tomorrow, or next week, or next month, feels like as much of a priority as whatever needs to happen right now. The interconnected nature of women's minds also leads them to a more thorough envisioning of what's possible, where as men have more limited imaginations, and tend to concern themselves more with what's actual. Again, these dynamics have pros and cons, and one of the cons of having a powerful grasp of potentialities is that they can sometimes feel as important and pressing as realities.
Most men don't have those kinds of stray thoughts. They have to pull out a box and examine its contents to think about a topic. (If they do stray, they usually stray into the Nothing Box.) And in that is the third piece of this puzzle: intention. It's that ability, that momentary exertion of energy that gives you a resurgence of control, to look at all of the demands on your time and mind and choose, preferably according to urgency.
So there you have it. The formula: Pause + Immediacy + Intentionality = Prioritization.
Now, if you'll allow me, I'm going to complicate the formula just a smidge. Because, at this point, you may be asking, "But how do I decide which of the needs I'm meant to meet is the most urgent? I mean, if I could do that, why would I be reading this blog?" And that's a fair question, so let me try to answer it.
Immediacy is, in large part, determined by your value system. And while that may seem fairly obvious, I mean that in what is perhaps a more aspirational way than is obvious. Here's an example. A client we were working with was struggling because she felt pressured to stay on top of her household chores. That pressure was extrapolated by the fact that she's been feeling sick. Her illness didn't, in her mind, however, create a competing priority because she doesn't value herself and her own well-being with any particular vigor. But it absolutely should have. If she doesn't get healthy, if she gets sicker, then she's definitely not going to be able to accomplish the other priorities that she values. So it's important for everyone (less in the moment of choice, more when you have a minute to think and breathe quietly) to consider the space that exists between what their values are and what they probably should be. How likely are your values to encourage you to trample over the needs of others? How likely are they to encourage you to sacrifice yourself to the edge of death to avoid saying "no" to others? How much are your values informed by unhealthy relationships and unhealthy expectations? What does God say is important - and how much do your values align with His? All of these questions can help you to establish a more internally consistent and healthy value system that can offer clarity to your priorities, so that you can contextualize them properly. Is mowing your lawn important? Definitely. Is it more important than spending time with your kids? Probably not. Is spending time with your family important? Absolutely. Is it more important than saving money for your necessary expenses in a financially tight month? Maybe not. Especially if your family has a bad habit of encouraging you to spend money you don't have.
It can be really helpful to talk to a wise and trusted mentor, a mental health counselor, a pastor, or an insightful friend when trying to decide what your value system should look like as you order it intentionally. These questions don't have to be answered in a vacuum, without the support of a loving community.
So, let's recap in light of our earlier hypothetical. Your boss is on the phone while your boiling noodles for dinner while the dog needs to go out while your daughter is asking weird and awkward questions.
STEP ONE: STRUCTURE YOUR VALUES ASPIRATIONALLY. In this case, being a quality employee is probably the most aspirational priority. Consider Colossians 3:23a, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord..." However, that doesn't necessarily mean slavish devotion to your employer. The best thing that you can do at this moment, depending on what your boss wants, might be to politely excuse yourself from the call so that you can give him your full attention later.
STEP TWO: TAKE A PAUSE. We have a total of 4 concerns. The boss, the dog, the daughter, and dinner. None of these are likely to explode if they don't have your instantaneous attention, so take a deep breath. Close your eyes and shut down your ears, for just a moment.
STEP THREE: CONSIDER THE IMMEDIACY OF THE PRIORITIES BEFORE YOU. Shuffle your boss off the phone firmly, but respectfully, and make sure to mention that you want him to be able to have your full attention. After that, the wildcard is probably dinner. Presuming that your dog is potty trained, he's probably not going to pee right at your feet if he has to wait 60 seconds for you to drain the pasta and come back to it. On the other hand, the pasta won't be ruined if it's not quite done and has to boil for 60 seconds while you open the back door and let the dog out.
STEP FOUR: MAKE AN INTENTIONAL DECISION BASED ON YOUR CONSIDERATIONS. So, flip that coin depending on where dinner is at in process: dinner then dog, or dog then dinner. Either way, you're coming back to finishing up the spaghetti, at which point you can probably autopilot that process enough to talk to your daughter. However, aspirationally speaking, even in the midst of an overwhelming day, it's more important that your daughter feels heard and seen than it is that the dog doesn't make a mess or that dinner doesn't get ruined - so briefly explain to her the steps that are going to happen before you answer her question. Now she knows that you're invested in her. Drain the pasta, put it back in the pot, leave it for a minute while you put the dog out, then come back and keep spaghetti-ing. Now, ask your daughter to repeat her question, and then give her your best guess. (It's because nipples are formed on a fetus in the womb before six to seven weeks, when gendered characteristics begin to take shape, by the way. Bonus fun fact, men don't lose their nipples at any point in development because they have a metabolic cost of zero - in other words, it doesn't take any work for a man to have nipples. The more you know!)
Admittedly, this is a simplistic and slightly silly example within the big wide world of all the ways that priorities can compete for our attention. But it's not altogether an uncommon occurrence (at least, in our house), and it's a good example of how this process works. We hope that it's helpful, and if you have any specific application questions, let us know in the comments! We're always happy to help further!