I had the pleasure of winding up in the hospital last month. After a few days of increasingly severe abdominal pain and nausea, I gave up self-treatment and went to the hospital. A CT scan showed severe inflammation in my large intestine. The upside: no surgery. The downside: being admitted for observation and treatment. A hospital bed is not my first choice as a place to get adequate rest. Despite the inconvenience, the several days of bedrest provided time for introspection.
As I passed the time staring at the ceiling from my hospital bed, I had a growing sense of fear. I wasn’t worried about my health. Instead, I feared falling behind on my work and life commitments. Each passing hour stirred up an increasing amount of dread that the world — and any relevant opportunities — were passing me by. The hours crept along, and I eventually came to terms with the reality of taking time off. Soon the days of solitary bed rest and boredom gave way to clarity.
When left to my thoughts, I began to take inventory of my life. After sorting through my tasks, I realized somewhere around 99% of my current work stress was self-imposed — a mix of internal deadlines on menial tasks; external desires to meet everyone’s needs; and obligations I didn’t have the capacity for. The busyness was crowding my mental space, keeping me from focusing on the handful of things that I really cared about.
I might have preferred a more voluntary approach to having this epiphany. Maybe a meditation retreat or a walk in the woods could have created the same breakthrough. However, it was the unexpectedness of the circumstance that made me pay attention. I no longer cared about organizing my folders or scrolling through emails. Given space, I saw that nearly everything could wait. Meetings, reports, signatures. These duties contributed very little in the larger scheme of my goals.
Into my third day in the hospital, I was beginning to find peace. I asked myself, what should I be doing now that I would still care about in a few years? The question eliminated a lot of busywork. I narrowed down my priorities to a handful of goals. Some aspirations were not surprising: fundraising benchmarks and leadership development. Others were: talking with my siblings and parents more often and finding ways to express love to my wife. In realizing how fragile life is, I saw want I wanted to do AND what I would regret not having done.
I couldn’t wait to be discharged — getting to sleep in my own bed, eating non-hospital food and returning to work. Once I was out, I struggled with keeping my new frame of reference. People still demanded things of me. I slipped back into my old state of reactivity and interruptions, feeling overwhelmed at the thought of reclaiming my inbox. After my first week back, I was exhausted. I thought back to the list of my top priorities. I had not spent time on a single one.
I’m back to work this week, conscious of everything pulling for my attention. I think back to my time in the hospital and revisit my goals before I start the day. As I open another email asking for my commitment, I have an unusual response. “Thanks so much for thinking of me for this opportunity. However, I can’t take this on. Wishing you the best of luck. Sincerely, Kunle.” I hesitate for a moment, fearing what the response might be. I hit send. The nervousness eases, and a sense of peace arises. It's hard not feeling as if I’m letting others down. But in pursuit of being accountable to myself, I have to sacrifice the fleeting satisfaction that accompanies doing as many things as I can for the true contentment that comes from living out my values.