How To Set Priorities

Getting distracted is easy. Getting caught up in the moment is easy. And losing sight of the big picture is easy.

So easy, that we hardly notice it’s happening. It’s not until the cumulative effects of distraction catch up to us, in the form of a really bad situation, that we even start to ask the question: “Where did it all go wrong?”

The unfortunate answer to this question is that giving in to one tiny distraction doesn’t lead us to divorce court, rehab, the hospital, or a dead-end career. Instead, it is the repeated offense of giving in to these tiny distractions over and over again that results in these terrible (but completely avoidable) situations.

Which begs the question: How do we avoid these life-wrecking situations?

… By setting priorities and sticking to them.

Priorities vs. Goals

Most every person I know sets goals. Whether it is to lose a few pounds or learn a new language, to clean out the garage or learn to play an instrument, goals are abundant. Unfortunately, so too are empty gyms in the third week of January and dusty guitars in the closet.

The reason why goals so often go unaccomplished is because goals are often set without any type of action plan or meaningful purpose attached to them. For example, when asked “why” someone would like to lose a few pounds, the answer is usually superficial in nature:

“Because I want to look good at the beach this summer” or “because it’s probably good for me”.

And while these motivations make logical sense, they aren’t tied to a meaningful, internal, long-term desire. “Looking good at the beach” is a desire, but it is a desire that can easily be dismissed because “how often do you go to the beach anyway” and what happens in the fall when “sweater season” rolls around? So rather than set goals influenced by our shallowest emotions and superficial desires, it is far more effective to set goals that are consistent with our deepest desires and the highest priorities that we have in our lives. But that is assuming we have already established our “Life’s Priorities”.

Setting Priorities

Setting Priorities is easy. All you have to do is ask yourself the question “when I die, how do I want to be remembered?” Do I want them to talk about how kind I was or how powerful I was? Do I want to be remembered for my charity or for my accumulation of wealth? How much time do I want people to spend talking about my collection of shoes / tools / purses / exotic sports cars? And what do I want them to say was most important to me: My family, my career, my community, or myself?

“Beginning with the end is mind” is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and it is wildly effective in this exercise as it forces us to cut through the superficial nonsense and get to root of our priorities:

“When I’m laying on my death bed, what will be most important to me?”

Will the hardwood floors, granite countertops, designer sofas, and big screen tv really matter anymore? Will ask to sit in my corner office just one more time? Or will I want to see people that I’ve lost touch with?

However you want to be remembered, that should immediately be set as your Number One Priority since it takes a lifetime to build a legacy.

Our Common Priorities

Throughout my travels, I’ve candidly never met anyone who legitimately wished ill upon their family. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to die friendless, penniless and alone. I’ve never encountered a person who wished for sickness to overcome them at a young age nor have I met anyone who desired less meaning in their life.

As different as we may think we are when compared to our neighbors, whether they be on the other side of the fence or the other side of the world, there are a fundamental set of common values that most all humans will cite as priorities.

As such, I believe that the following priorities are a solid starting place for most people:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health
  • Spirituality
  • Work

I purposefully didn’t number these as I’m confident that each person would likely have a different order for these priorities to be in. Additionally, I don’t believe this to be an exhaustive list of Priorities. Even so, I don’t think you can many more that maybe seven or eight priorities before the “so-called” priorities at the bottom of your list start being completely ignored.

A critical step in personalizing your Priorities List is ordering these priorities from Most Important to Least Important and then behaving in a manner that coincides with the order of your list. Then, rather than trying to “balance” your priorities, you simply “follow” them. If you’ve set family as having a higher priority than friends, “taking your kids to the park” vs. “going golfing with the fellas” becomes a no-brainer. When you follow your priorities, not only do your decisions become easy, but you never question your actions because you know you’ve already taken care of the most important stuff.

Once you have an ordered list of Priorities, I believe it is beneficial to enhance the name of each Priority with an adjective to make it more accurate with your specific desires. Perhaps “Family” is one of your priorities, as it is for most of the eight billion people on earth, but what kind of “family” are you trying to have and be a part of? Is it a “happy family” that you desire or are you more committed to having a “strong family”? Is a “stable family” most important to you or is a “compassionate, forgiving family” the legacy you want to leave behind?

After much thought and internal debate, the following is what I have set for my life’s priorities:

  • Compassionate Spirituality
  • Loving Family
  • Best Friends
  • Empowering Health
  • Inspiring Business

That said, I encourage you to take some time and establish for yourself a set of thoughtful Life Priorities which you will follow and be proud to leave as a legacy that will live on long after you are gone.

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to actually structure your Projects and Tasks so that you will actually be able to maintain your Priorities.

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