un·done — adjective \ən -ˈdən\
: not fastened or tied
: not done
: defeated or destroyed
What will I leave undone?
Ryan’s side is hardly rumpled. My sheets are in a violent tangle. It’s 2:35 p.m., and I’ve decided against making the bed.
The laundry basket I emptied two days ago loiters by the closet. And I haven’t yet returned the mistakenly sorted items—a lonely sock, a pair of tights—to their proper owners. From the bedside table, these refugees await their right of return with Annie Dillard’s American Childhood, which I left off reading weeks ago.
I’ll leave a lot undone today. I’ll skip the gym. I won’t advance on my book manuscript. I’ll misremember the hour I was supposed to accompany my younger son and his class to the ravine and miss the outing entirely, planning my profuse apologies for tomorrow. I won’t straighten my desk. The clutter of the bedside table will remain.
In my defense, I shoveled the entire driveway without a hat under the weight of the morning snowfall, my hair getting soggy and drying later to eventual frizz. If I’m leaving some things undone today, it’s because guests are coming for brunch tomorrow, and I must perfect the plum cake.
What will I leave undone?
This is a question that forces the careful, even courageous consideration of priorities. It’s a question I most need every New Year, especially since January is so virile, my inner-critic so exacting. I’m as predictable as anyone in the resolutions I make: I’ll be more hospitable, exercise regularly, give quality attention to my family, and become better at my professional work. I’ll even keep my kitchen drawers crumb-free and call my mother weekly.
January makes me dreamy about change, and admittedly, there’s a thrill about planning to finally achieve languishing goals. But I’m learning this: we don’t make good on new ambitions if we refuse harder questions:
- What must necessarily be left undone if I move toward this goal?
- Whom might I disappoint when I leave those other things undone?
- Do I have the necessary courage for facing those disappointed people?
- What happens if I cease to be central to the obligations from which I must disentangle myself?
- Am I willing to grow into the humility that develops when I intentionally choose less—and am consequently relied upon less?
Setting priorities and living faithfully by them is never easy. There’s no breeze in life that carries us effortlessly to the shore of the meaningful life. Rather, what will be required for new ambitions is the muscular motion of rowing into the wind: of other people’s expectations, of self-imposed obligation, of inner demons like fear, apathy, and laziness. Priorities require both the strong yes as well as the brave no. Priorities depend on resistance as much as thrust, pull as much as push. To set a priority is to decide what will be prior—first; in this way, it requires the courage for leaving things undone. What I’m describing is what Greg McKeown describes in his book, Essentialism, as the “disciplined pursuit of less.” In McKeown’s words, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
What will I leave undone for the coming year? To begin, I’ll do as I’ve done today: turn down a free book and the request to write about it. I have a young family to raise, my own book to write. I have laundry—and friends, whose birthdays I must finally begin remembering. These priorities will require I forsake other ambitions. It will certainly demand I abandon my preferred measure of impeccability. More often than I feel willing, I’ll have to settle for ‘good-enough.’ To put something prior, I’ll have to leave something undone.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?” asks the poet, Mary Oliver.
Or, in other words, what do you plan to leave undone?
WORD COUNT: 637
Jen Pollock Michel is a writer and speaker who lives with her husband and five children in Toronto. She is the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith*
(InterVarsity Press 2014). Jen also writes regularly for Today in the Word, a devotional published by The Moody Bible Institute, and is a regular contributor for Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog. Jen earned her BA in French from Wheaton College and her MA in Literature from Northwestern University. You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel or you can find her at jenpollockmichel.com.
*This website uses “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”