A Surprising Thought on Priorities

Any productivity expert will tell you that time management is all about priorities. “You need to set your priorities,” they say, or “Figure our your priorities, then you can effectively plan your time.” As a result, most of us feel pressured to define our priorities, and to make sure we get them right.

While understanding priorities is definitely important for how you use your time, here is a truth about priorities that may surprise you: you already have them.

We all make time for what matters most to us. For example,

  • A man who loves to golf will play in the rain if that is his only option
  • A coffee lover makes time to stop on the way to work to pick up a favorite brew
  • A mom interrupts her day to run a needed supply over to school
  • An executive pauses work on a project to take a call from a valued client
  • A student who wants to get into medical school spends long hours in the library
  • An athlete stays after practice for extra drills on a needed skill

In a speech to students at Princeton University, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said, “In the end, we are our choices.” The choices we make, with whatever time and resources we have, are the tangible expression of what matters most to us. In other words, we live out our priorities every day.

When it comes to priorities, the issue is less about creating them and more about clarifying them.

The best way to clarify your priorities is to look at how you spend your time. Not how you would spend your time in an ideal world, but rather the way you are living right now. For some people, this can be a satisfying exercise where the walk and the talk align. Others may find that what they are doing and what they say is most important don’t align. In my experience, there are a couple of factors that can interfere with living our lives in alignment with our priorities:

> Pressure to prioritize certain things

Many of us struggle with setting priorities because there is a disconnect between what we honestly care about and what friends/family tell us we should care about. Maybe a student wants to go to trade school, but the society in which he grew up expects him to go to a high-ranking university. Perhaps an executive has a gift for managing people, but is being pressured to take a job in computer coding because it makes more money. We sacrifice our own priorities to someone else’s.

> Seasons of life

There are many instances in which the demands we face in a certain stage of life temporarily interfere with other priorities. Whether desired or not, changes in circumstance may require that we shift our priorities, even if only for a transitory time. For example, we have a new baby and cannot get to the gym or get enough rest, interfering with our priority of being healthy. This simply means that another priority has bubbled up to the top of our list for a limited period of time.

> Anxieties

Often we have certain goals or dreams, but don’t invest time in pursuing them because we don’t know how to proceed and/or are afraid of failure. The discouraging voice in our head artificially inflates all the possible negatives of taking action, keeping us from doing what our hearts really desire. In this case, avoiding the uncomfortable becomes our priority, usually manifesting as procrastination.

> Destructive habits

Unfortunately, many of us fall into unhealthy or time-sapping patterns of behavior that undermine our focus on what we say matters most. Maybe we waste time on social media, or hit the snooze button instead of getting up to head to the gym. We say one thing, but we do another. To some extent, this is normal. Nobody bats 100% every day. However, when we repeatedly make excuses for not doing what we say we want to do, it is wise to do a little digging into why we keep falling short. Addictions, learning disabilities, emotional conditions and more can be blocking us from pursuing our priorities.

Priorities are funny things. We life our lives by them. Understanding our priorities is the first step in charting a course of productivity and fulfillment. We all start a journey from where we are standing.

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Would you say that your schedule and your priorities are in alignment? Why or why not?

26 thoughts on “A Surprising Thought on Priorities”

    1. I so agree, Ellen. So many competing voices. Often we say we value one thing, but our time doesn’t reflect this priority. I believe we can get stuck for a variety of reasons, and end up unproductively swirling around, which only makes us feel more stuck. In these cases, we might need to take a bold and intentional move (like taking a class or hiring outside help) to get us going in our preferred direction.

  1. My priorities and goals sometimes get hampered. But that is because as a mom that works from home I tend to go around my family’s schedules. For instance, today and tomorrow my girls are off from school for the Jewish holiday. While we aren’t Jewish and don’t celebrate this holiday, the local public school observe it. So, working from home gets put on hold a bit while they are off. I did try to get ahead last week while they were in school though. So, while this may hamper my work productivity for the next two days slightly, I did make certain accommodations knowing that this would be occurring. That said sometimes, life throws curveballs such as this that aren’t planned. That is truly when priorities get out of whack I suppose.

    1. I remember trying to manage these few days of vacation right up at the beginning of the school year. You want to move full throttle into productivity mode, and then suddenly you have kids home again. Last week we had many schools releasing children early due to the heat. I’m sure this also threw a wrench into the plans of many parents. Looking ahead and planning as best as we can is a wonderful way to be able to flex with the curveballs start flying in!

  2. Anxieties and destructive habits tend to derail me. Once I finally push myself to do something or get a nudge from my husband I realize it wasn’t so bad after all. And I easily fall into the social media time suck trap. I find if I eat the frog first then I reward myself with Instagram perusing and that seems to work – lol! Kind of like I do with my son; first you practice piano then you get time on your tablet. 😉

    1. First things first, right? That works for me pretty well too, except when I have too much to do. In that case, I never get around to the reward, which can be an equally negative situation. We are all a work in progress!

    1. I need to listen to my own posts sometimes, as this one is challenging! We should be able to live by our priorities. If we consistently fall short, or regularly push aside something we claim to be important, it is worth digging a bit to figure out what’s going on, and then taking steps to get on the track we wish to travel.

  3. I find that taking time to determine my priorities helps me stay on track with them. If I choose to change my priorities or I slip up once in a while, I forgive myself. Judging oneself only adds negative talk and makes us belittle ourselves.

    Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you have another more pressing priority to focus on first. We are all here to learn about ourselves.

    1. Priorities should definitely be movable and shiftable. Each day brings its own challenges, and we need to feel the freedom to respond. Peace and self-forgiveness are always helpful… not when they are excuses, but when they allow us to move past a difficult moment and keep pursuing forward progress.

  4. I love what you said about clarifying priorties by first looking at where we are actually spending our time. From there examine if there’s a disconnect between what we ARE doing and what we feel we WANT to be doing. But your advice didn’t stop there. The examples to examine further if there is a disconnect are so useful. But what really hit me was the Bezos quote and your interpretation of it: “The choices we make, with whatever time and resources we have, are the tangible expression of what matters most to us.” Priorites can be adjusted due to desire, circumstance, or need. However, the bottomline is that what we choose to do each day whether it’s intentional or not, become our priorites.

    1. You’ve summarized it beautifully, Linda. So many of us say one thing and do another, but if we dig into those actions, perhaps we find that we actually are living out our priorities. It can be a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario, but it is worth spending a bit of time pondering I think!

    1. Such an excellent point, Olive. It seems like it is easier to tell others what should be important to them than to get in touch with the same list for ourselves. That is so great that you could see the disconnect for you with those other opportunities. We do have choices, and we know ourselves better than anyone else:)

  5. I’m so glad that you included “seasons of life” and how they can impact our priorities. Rather than beat ourselves up during those periods of life, it’s important to show ourselves (and others) grace. When we realize that a season of life is simply a pause or slight detour, it can make it a bit easier to stay focused on priorities even during that period of delay.

    1. I agree, Susan. I was with a group of MOPS Moms today, and we were discussing this very thing. Since life changes, our day-to-day priorities will also change. Rather than fight them, or feel like we aren’t fulfilling our goals or purpose, let’s just embrace what is on our plate today!

  6. RIGHT NOW MY PRIORITY IS TO ADJUST THE THE HURRICANE FORCED DELAY OR CANCELLATION OF OUR PLANNED TRIP SOUTH. THE UNCERTAINTY OF THE STORM IS KEEPING ME FROM SETTING ANY PRIORITIES OTHER THAN TO KEEP ON PLANNING TO GO AND MOVING TOWARD THAT END. WHEN WE KNOW FOR SURE IF WE ARE GOING OR NOT, I WILL NEED TO SET NEW PRIORITIES FOR THE TIME AT HOME I HAD NOT EXPECTED AND HOPEFULLY USE THE TIME PRODUCTIVELY MAYBE DOING SOMETHING FUN I CAN NEVER GET TO IN MY REGULAR SCHEDULE. MAYBE IF IT GETS CANCELLED I WILL USE THE TIME TO DELVE INTO A PROJECT I HAVE BEEN PROCRASTINATING ON BECAUSE I THOUGHT I DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO FINISH IT. YOUR ARTICLE MADE ME STOP AND THINK WHAT MY PRIORITIES REALLY ARE. THANKS.

    1. The hurricane is throwing all of our plans into disarray right now. I’m sorry that your vacation may be compromised. Priorities can get completely shifted by life events, so thank you for sharing this. Sometimes you have to regroup and think again about what matters now given the current set of circumstances.

  7. That’s interesting because I’m going through that tonight. Mainly that I dipped my hand into too many things, as usual, and I have four job tasks to do. The ones due tomorrow are taking priority right now!
    But also, it’s so fascinating what people will do or not do when something is a priority vs. when it isn’t. I see a lot of that in myself.

  8. Hi Seana. I love this. My current “excuse” is that I feel I have to work a 9-5 job. I am off most Mondays and I really find I need to guard and use that time wisely. I do work on my business/blog/passions at other times but it feels like s drop in the bucket if you know what I mean. It is so true though that we do what we want/need and we do get to choose. I love your list. Thanks Seana love your posts.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kim. Working a full schedule saps our energy (mental and physical), so maybe our priority is to relax and refresh a bit… perfectly reasonable! You are smart to make the most of your Mondays. Having a designated day to tackle projects helps you plan. And yes, I certainly understand that “drop in the bucket” feeling!

  9. Yes, I think anxiety is a big factor and can really keep people from feeling able to pursue things. I know that this was true for a lot of people back when I used to work as a psychologist.

    I think many people also use time as an excuse and think that at some later point, they’ll sort out their priorities (e.g., once I complete some project, get some promotion) and spend more time with their kids/spouse/friends/church or pursue that hobby/exercise/healthy diet/travel dream etc. But it can be hard to get off that treadmill to make your actions match your internal priorities. And you never know how much time you have!
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    1. I love your comment, “it can be hard to make your actions match your internal priorities.” I so agree. I think there is peace to be found in aligning our inner and outer selves, and spending time on your priorities is one way to do this. I didn’t know you used to be a psychologist… I’m sure I could learn from you!

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