Ask anyone who owns a garden and they will tell you that weeds are a constant battle – and an absolute nuisance. These pesky, seemingly indestructible super plants will take over any patch of dirt if you let them. You can pull them out or whack them down, but like credit card bills and dental plaque, they inevitably spring right back the minute you turn your back. Plaque and weeds are definitely spiritual brothers.

Last week, I was on my knees in my own garden contemplating this when a thought suddenly occurred to me: this is how our lives are. Constantly under siege by outside forces competing for our precious energy and resources. What do these weeds look like in our own lives? The answer is different for everyone, but I would say anything that distracts you from your primary area of focus might be considered a “weed.” If it keeps you from doing what’s most important, or stifles your growth and development in any way, then it is almost certainly a weed.

The Root of the Problem

Given the choice to focus or wander, our minds will always prefer to wander. And let’s face it, there has never been a better time to be distracted. Binge television watching, Facebook, viral videos, online shopping, fantasy football – these all feel really good in the moment by distracting us from our worries, temporarily easing our anxiety. Most of us are pretty careful with how we spend our money, but far less careful with how we spend our attention. But those hours quickly add up. And how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. So it requires constant vigilance to rein in our minds and focus on what is really important.

It begins by learning to recognize weeds in the first place, and they can take many forms. These can be negative people, a cluttered home environment, unnecessary time commitments, troublesome or intrusive thoughts. Anything that you are tolerating or simply enduring, may be a weed – and enough of them will slowly choke the life out of you. If you find you are spending too much time in meetings that go nowhere, going on horrible dates, obsessing over someone’s Facebook comment, or socializing with people you don’t particularly like, then maybe it’s time for some judicious pruning. Only by consciously choosing what not to care about, can we make room for new growth to occur.

Pulling Weeds and Sowing Seeds

I recently had lunch with an old friend who had just returned from a seven day meditation retreat in Arizona. Naturally, I was curious what he had learned, so I asked what his biggest insight was at his retreat. “I think I learned how to narrow my focus,” he said. Then he held up five fingers to illustrate his point. “There’s only five things that really matter to me: being a good husband, father, health, career and friends.” By naming his top priorities in this way, my friend was actively choosing what he wished to cultivate. Everything else would need to be carefully weeded.

Most good gardeners – and I am certainly not one of them – will tell you that cultivating a garden takes time, preparation and patience. It’s not enough to just pull the weeds out, you have to actively nurture the plants you want to see grow. That means planting the right thing at the right time of year for next year’s bloom, protecting against the weather, insects or other potential hazards. The same could be said of our relationships. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are constantly sowing the seeds of our future lives. Every conversation, every interaction has a ripple effect down the road. “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

Years ago when I worked as a recruiter in New York, I met with many hundreds of individuals in the course of doing my work. There were a lot of meetings that seemingly went nowhere. But even if I had nothing to offer a particular candidate, I made it a point to end on a positive note. I regarded each meeting as a “success” if it led to an ongoing conversation. Maybe something would come up, and maybe we could help each other down the road? And that is often what happened, but not till years later. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actively planting seeds.

Like gardens in the real world, the gardens of our lives require constant care and attention. This means carefully evaluating how and where we spend our time. In his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey suggests, “Do what is important rather than what is urgent.” Moreover, it sometimes means setting careful boundaries with friends and family so we don’t become overtaxed. Maybe it means letting go of an old relationship that you have outgrown and is causing you both pain. The golden rule is this: if something makes you come alive, then by all means, keeps doing it. But if something just makes you feel dead inside, then have the courage to say “no thanks” or walk away.

One thing is certain, the weeds are never going to fully disappear. The good news is that we can manage them with some careful auditing and intentionality. And if we’re lucky, occasionally, we may even enjoy some beautiful blooms.