Too Many Priorities for Your Own Good?

Let "Critical" Be Your Guide

ARTICLE | Oct 27, 2017

By Jeff Davidson

It's likely that you have a variety of priorities, perhaps too many to handle effectively. In Q&A format, here are some new approaches to the issue.

Q: Priorities are the things that are most important to us. What if we choose too many?

A: Many people have too many priorities; chances are that you do. Often priorities have been imposed upon you. The things you have to do at work, of course, become priorities. We also have personal priorities.

Paradoxically, if you have a lot of priorities in your life, then by definition they can't all be priorities! How can too many items to juggle be of critical importance to you in life?

When individuals have a long list of priorities, it's a clue that they've never really identified the things that are truly important in their lives. The number of priorities we have has to be a small number. It may be four, seven, or nine, but if it's 24, they simply can't all be priorities.

For most people, priorities fall into several categories: family, relatives, and people close to them; society in general, the community, and the nation; health and well-being; becoming prosperous or successful; career growth; and intellectual or spiritual growth. These are not entirely universal but, for most people, priorities will fit into one of these categories.

Q: So the key is to choose priorities wisely?

A: Yes. Picking too many, or ineffectively picking priorities, leads to no priorities. A friend of mine considers it a great "priority" in his life to see his parents often. Yet, he doesn't make the 36-mile round trip but once every month or two.

He really hasn't identified his priorities. It might be a priority for him to think that he wants to see his parents on a regular basis. In reality and in terms of actual visits, this isn't the case.

Q: So, how can we determine our priorities?

A: Write down everything that's important to you in life, personally and professionally. Caution: It's hard to separate personal and professional lives when it comes to priorities, because your life is a system in which what you do in one realm affects what happens in the other. Still, write down everything.

Several days later, re-examine the list and cross out things that don't ring true anymore, and add things if you forgot them earlier. Another day, look at the list again and see if any items can be grouped together.

Reword and re-label priorities. If you're uncertain about an item, consider dropping it. Go through the same process the next day as well.

Next, prepare a draft of your priority list. Although the list might change over time, stay with it for now. Whether the list has four, seven, or nine items, maintain the list. If the list has 18 or 24 items, pare it down further to avoid overwhelming yourself.

As you examine your list, become a consultant to yourself. When faced with a problem, U.S. President Richard Nixon would become a consultant to himself, referring to himself in the third person, which allowed him a degree of objectivity than normally can't be reached by facing an issue head-on.

Q: Why does this technique work?

A: Thinking of yourself in the third person frees you to write down ideas that you might not have otherwise considered. What would a third party say about your priority list? Does it actually represent what's important to you, based on how you act and live, or merely on your aspirations?

Q: What Traps Linger?

A: Be sure that you don't create a list full of items to which you're only paying lip service—things that are not truly priorities but which you think of as priorities.

Like the guy who ruminates about being close to his parents, I know a woman who says she likes to keep her weekends free, because leisure time is important in her life. Yet, she's worked six Saturdays in a row.

Granted, there could be a short-term crunch but, in the long run, if she's working one Saturday after another, it's clear that her weekends are not important to her. Otherwise, she would be engaging in other activities to free up her weekends.

Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC, is principal, Breathing Space® Institute, Raleigh, North Carolina (www.BreathingSpace.com or Jeff@Breathingspace.com). An author and presenter on work-life balance, he holds the world's only registered trademark from the United States Patent and Trademark Office as "The Work-Life Balance Expert."®

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