Note: this blog post was inspired in part by this article from Leo Babauta at  Zen Habits and this article by Buster Benson, two of my favorite sources for this type of thinking.

After writing this post, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what life is all about. I read a few books about existentialism, but I haven’t totally digested those concepts yet. One exercise I did do that I thought was particularly valuable was to sit down and list out everything that is important to me, and everything I’m currently committed to or choosing to do. It is an interesting exercise to reconcile how I spend my time with how I could best spend my time. (If you want to try, check out the aforementioned Zen Habits article).

While what is important might be different for everyone, knowing what is important to me has helped me identify things I do that fit in with what’s important and things that I do that aren’t as important to me and should be minimized. It highlights things I should be doing with my time when I can’t think of what to do (like taking the time to write this article).

I realized that things that are most important to me fit into one of three categories:  self-improvementmeaningful work,  and  quality time with friends and family. These categories are pretty broad, and could provide justification for a lot of things, so I think they are most useful in how I define them.

Self-improvement : to me, self-improvement right now is roughly divided into three main categories: health, productivity, and mindfulness.

  • Health : It’s important to me that I’m both “not sick” (after months of struggling with vitamin deficiencies and GI symptoms of unknown origin) and “in shape.” After months of experimenting with my diet, I consider myself “not sick.” To get in shape, I’ve started running more and have signed up for my first trail run in July and my first half-marathon in October.
  • Productivity : As a student, my success in grad school is highly dependent on how much time and energy I put into my work. This is both liberating and a challenge, so minimizing procrastination, and setting priorities and goals for myself have become pretty important to me.
  • Mindfulness : To me, this means time for reflection and time for myself. Reading has been something I’ve kept up with pretty consistently even when I’m very busy, and I’m trying to write more and begin a meditation habit.

Meaningful work:  I have a hard time motivating myself to do work if I don’t find it meaningful. I divide my meaningful work into three categories right now: research, building skills / learning, and community.

  • Research : I have had a passion for research since high school, and my PhD research is my primary work focus. Right now I’m working to define a thesis topic that will be both meaningful to me and impactful on a larger scale. My main goal is to develop technologies that empower others to help themselves, particularly in regards to health and chronic diseases.
  • Building skills / learning : The curiosity that fuels my interest in research also makes me want to learn about just about everything. One example has been my reading about existentialism. I also think it will be helpful for me to learn skills directly relevant in my future workplace, so I’m thinking of working on some technical projects this summer.
  • Community:  People are important to me, so doing work in my community is very meaningful to me. Starting in the Fall, I will work as a mediator in my department to help others with getting through grad school. I also participate in Boston’s Quantified Self meetup group to learn more about others interested in self-tracking and to get more people involved.

Quality time with friends and family: As I mentioned above, people are very important to me. I’ve learned over the past few years, though, that it isn’t enough to just be around people all the time. It’s important to actually spend quality time with those you really care about (rather than just partying all the time as a way of socializing). Quality time with someone or a group of people really depends on who you are dealing with, so I didn’t really break this category down any further. Whether time with someone is considered “quality time” or not is pretty subjective, but it’s something you are sure of when it happens.

There are several things I do that do not fit in anywhere on this list. The most notable ones I can think of are time spent on social media and blogs, watching TV, and time spent on e-mail. These are usually things I do to procrastinate and I’m sure many people have come to similar conclusions about themselves and how they spend their time. To be fair, I really enjoy reading links people post on twitter and facebook, but I find it is incredibly easy to just become a “consumer” of information, without taking any time to reflect on what I’ve read or contribute to the conversations out there. I’m just going through the motions and it’s easier to passively absorb information than to think critically or get up and do something.

I don’t think the answer is to give up on potential “time wasters” entirely, but now that I’ve identified things that are most important to me, any time I do something, I ask myself, “Is what I’m doing right now really something that makes me happy?” The answer may still be yes, even if what I’m doing is a “time waster,” but I want to avoid choosing to do things because they are my default rather than because they make me sincerely happy.

My goal is to be more deliberate about everything I do. I’m going to pick a few things that are important to me and focus more of my time and effort on them. Focusing on what is important to me will help bring meaning, happiness, and fulfillment.