Choose Well

Is anyone else out there a sucker for self-help books?

*raises hand sheepishly*

I think I’m drawn to this type of book out of my own nearly constant feeling of overwhelm. I spend most of my life at the mercy of deadlines I’m just barely managing to keep ahead of. The tyranny of the urgent crowds my days until I feel like I’m drowning in an ocean of to-dos that need to be addressed RIGHT NOW.

So I grasp for something—anything—that promises to get me off the hamster wheel I’m franticly spinning, and I check out book after book from the library about time management and habits and morning routines and all the new and shiny methods that are absolutely, definitely, positively going to change my life.

Only, they don’t.

I’m not saying they aren’t helpful—I’ve gleaned valuable tips from most of the self-help books I’ve read, tips that have made a difference in my life—but none of them have changed my life in the way I hoped they would. And, eventually, I decided that all the time I spent looking for strategies to defeat the overwhelm in my life would be better spent attacking the never-ending to-do list causing the overwhelm in the first place.

And then, I discovered this book:

Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities

The publisher describes Juliet’s School of Possibilities as “A charming, life-changing fable that will help you rethink your whole approach to time, priorities, and possibilities.” The book tells the story of Riley Jenkins, an ambitious consultant in her late twenties who is always working but failing to succeed at the things that matter most. When the book begins, everything in Riley’s life seems to be falling apart, both personally and professionally. Just when it seems like things can’t get any worse, she is forced to spend a weekend attending a women’s leadership retreat with her colleagues.

Overwhelmed, desperate, and unable to focus on anything for more than a few seconds, Riley arrives at Juliet’s School of Possibilities for the leadership retreat—and there she meets Juliet, who somehow manages to parent two children alone, run a highly successful business, and still have all the time in the world.


To be honest, I expected this book to be cheesy. A “parable” about priorities and time management? Really? Pessimistic as I was about the literary merit of what I had already classified as a fictionalized self-help book, I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by Laura Vanderkam, so I thought I’d give it a try.

And I was blown away.

(There are no spoilers regarding the plot of the book in this post, but I do talk about the book’s main message as I perceived it. If you’d rather to experience the story without my thoughts about it getting in the way, feel free to stop here and read the book before continuing.)

There’s something about narrative that reaches me in ways nonfiction books don’t. The book described so perfectly the FEELING of being overwhelmed—a feeling I’m all too familiar with—and it put words and images and a sense of tangibility to my worst, unspoken fears about where that overwhelm might lead me.

But then, it did the exact same thing for the type of life I’d like to lead instead—it showed me what that kind of life would feel like, made it seem real and concrete. Instead of handing me how-tos, it gave me vision—and right now, that’s what I want.

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

F. Scott Fitzgerald


There were four statements in the book that summarized its message:

  1. Expectations are infinite.
  2. Time is finite.
  3. You are always choosing.
  4. Choose well.

None of this is anything I was unfamiliar with—but something about the way it was presented resonated with me.

“She always has so much to do and yet nothing that matters gets done…”

Laura Vanderkam, Juliet’s School of Possibilities

I’ve written a lot about expectations on this blog, about my need to lower my expectations for myself. This book reminded me of another truth: there will always be more expectations than I have time to meet.

You’d think I’d find that realization frustrating—but instead, I find it liberating. The impossibility of my meeting all the expectations I feel pressured by means I have to say no to some—or most—of them. The consciousness that my time is limited reminds me that I only have time to do the most important things—and that, therefore, I have to let go of everything else.

Time is so very, very finite. And if I only have room to meet a tiny fraction of the expectations I and others place on me, I’d better make sure I’m focusing on the most important ones.


I think this is the concept that resonated most strongly with me: I am always choosing what I prioritize, what I value.

In one sense, this realization is convicting. Like Riley, the main character in the book, I spend too much time chasing things that don’t matter, and consequently—because time is finite—I neglect the things that do.

But I do have a choice—and if I could realize that, wrap my mind around the idea that I get to choose which expectations to prioritize and which to let go—I would find that there is always enough time for the things that truly matter.

“I have to see the vision of the life I want. I have to ask of every minute, of every decision, every obligation I choose to take on: Is this bringing me closer to that vision? Or am I doing it just because it’s there?

Laura Vanderkam, Juliet’s School of Possibilities

I expected this book to feel like a self-help book thinly veiled as fiction. Instead, it felt like an inspiration, like a gentle invitation to consider the possibilities in my own life as the main character considers the possibilities in hers. I find I’m more relaxed after reading it—no less busy, but a lot less frazzled.

This book does not present a list of strategies for managing my time better. Instead, it offers a different way of thinking about time, about the hours and minutes that make up my life—and, as I’ve come to realize, it is the way we think about our lives that lies at the root of every positive change we make.

In the few short days since I’ve read this book, it has already made a difference in the way I approach my time. Books like this one are the reason I read in the first place: to guide my thinking toward things that matter, to help me see things in a new light, and—ultimately—to be changed, subtly but surely, for the better.

Do you feel like you have enough time, or (like me) is this something you struggle with? Does the way you spend your time align with your priorities? I’d love to discuss these ideas with you in the comments!

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