Priorities Are Your Friends—Here’s How to Make Better Ones

Recipe for overwhelm

Here’s a recipe for overwhelm: Having a mile-long to-do list with everything on it lumped in to the same category. Where do you start? What do you prioritize? How do you know what to do when? It’s enough to make you want to go spend an hour scrolling through Facebook instead, isn’t it?

In my own business, life, and coaching practice, there’s one thing I know is 100% true: It’s impossible to be truly productive and feel fulfilled if you don’t have clear priorities. When you know what matters most, and why, you can put your time to good use to do the things that move the needle on your success and that speak to your heart.

Today I want to share with you my favorite way to set priorities that takes into account both the things that produce results AND the things that light a fire in your heart. It also gives you a strategy for dealing the tasks that do neither.

I recommend writing your answers to the following four questions down on a piece of paper, because seeing something written in your hand is a great way to get some vital objectivity on what has previously only been swirling around in your head. Doing so will reveal your priorities in order from highest (the answer to question number 1) to lowest (the answer to question 4).

You can do this exercise twice—once for life and once for work—or just once if you want to blend your work and your life. I find both strategies helpful—sometimes it’s a relief to compartmentalize your work priorities, and sometimes it’s more clarifying to put everything on the same page so you can see the big picture. Your call.

1: What are the things that I care the most about that ALSO have the biggest benefits to me and my goals?

These are your top priority! You can’t spend your whole day doing them, because there are lots of other things on your list of responsibilities, but these are the things you want to make sure get first dibs on your calendar.

While your answer will depend on what YOU LOVE, possibilities for this category include:

  • Working out
  • The favorite parts of your job that contribute directly to your success—maybe you love speaking and it also helps you get new clients, for example.
  • Doing things that impart your values to your kids
  • Cooking healthy meals so that you eat better and spend less on takeout

2: What things are important for my success and happiness that I DON’T love doing?

This is often a pretty full category for most people!

Possible answers here include:

  • Marketing and/or sales
  • Speaking
  • Planning
  • Grocery shopping for the ingredients for those healthy meals

For this category, you’ve got to find a way to make these more compelling and palatable. Get out your colored pencils and fun sticky notes for your planning session, invest in a marketing consultant who can walk you through the overwhelm (as I did with the great Nancy Sheed when How to Be a Better Person came out). Or have a contest with a friend to see who can have more sales conversations in a month. Make it fun! Make it a game. Do what it takes to feel better while you do these things and you will go from feeling like you’re always having to bust your butt to kicking butt.

3: What are the things that light my fire but DON’T particularly move the needle on my success and happiness?

Possibilities here include:

  • A hobby
  • Researching (particularly past the point of usefulness)
  • Reading a great book
  • Quitting work early to go sit under a tree or meet a friend for a glass of wine

These are the things you want to make time for even though they may not be technically “productive.” Re-thinking these activities to see how they can actually move the needle on your success and happiness can help you save some time for them each week.

Maybe your painting class doesn’t help you get things done, but it certainly helps you relax and think more creatively which helps in all parts of your life.

Maybe working out during the day takes you away from your desk, but you can see if you look more closely that you work more efficiently afterward because your brain has had a chance to clear and your body has released some stress.

Or maybe researching is something you could start doing for other people as an additional revenue stream.

4: What things do I not enjoy AND that don’t really move the needle for me?

These are things like:

  • Worrying about money
  • Scrolling through social media
  • Ferrying the kids around town
  • Keeping the house clean at all times
  • Scheduling appointments

These are the things you ought to, per the great advice of Laura Vanderkam, minimize, outsource, or ignore. Because they are not priorities! You can ignore dishes in the sink, trade rides with other families, or pay a sitter to do your schlepping. I hired someone to run errands for me and it’s the best $30 a week I could spend!

I hope this exercise helps you commit to the things that move you the farthest and that make you happy, and to let go of some of the things that do neither.

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