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.
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?