During a recent sermon, my pastor talked about life priorities and the correlation (or lack thereof) of time and energy spent doing things. This struck a chord with me because I have been contemplating this very idea for some time now. I often find, especially at the turn of the New Year, that people (myself included) spend time deciding what their priorities are. They write these down into a list and label the list as their New Year’s Resolutions. And yes, I have done this for a number of years. Finally they (we) go about their happy lives doing exactly what they did the previous year.
The Great Discrepancy
You see, when I make out my New Year’s Resolutions, I decide what I want my priorities to be. I’m trying to tell myself that these are the things that are important to me and as such I will resolve myself to doing them (or not doing them as the case may be) this year. However, after the luster of that list wears thin, I tend to regress back into the old way of life. I say that I want to get into better shape, but I only go to the gym regularly during the first couple of months of the year. I say that I want to get closer to God, but how much time do I spend reading His word? I say that I want a better marriage, but how much actual, measurable effort am I expending to make that happen? I find in myself that there is a great discrepancy between what I want to be a priority in my life and what my life actions say are the real priorities in my life.
What To Do?
Well, they say that knowledge is half the battle. You need to know what your priorities are. At least, what you want your priorities to be. Fortunately, if you’ve made some New Year’s Resolutions, then you have mostly done this part. For me, I was holding off on writing my list out until I decided what direction I was going to take. Was I going to do the same old resolutions again, or at least attempt to approach this differently. I decided different was good.
If knowledge is half the battle, then I think perhaps the other half is action. You have to do something in order to make progress. This is where most of us go astray. We start out by doing the right things (January gym visits) and then slowly migrate towards doing the easier things, the things that are more fun or the things that life demands of us. I believe that by combining our knowledge of what is important with a well structured plan of action we may be able to make positive changes towards living our lives in an appropriately prioritized way. Below is my four part plan of attack.
1) Making the List
Building your priority list should be the first, well… priority. I am a visual thinker, so I like to use mind mapping when I can. Mind Meister is a website which you can use (FREE of charge) to start getting into mind mapping. If that sort of thing isn’t your bag (baby), then plain old text lists will do just fine.
Start by coming up with a few large priority areas. For my list I chose God, family and career. These areas are intentionally broad and allow you to organize your priorities. If you start filling in your list and one of these areas is much larger than the others (i.e. career), then that may be a flag that your priorities need some adjustment… maybe. Here is an example that I created.
Underneath each of these areas, define what is a priority. What is important? For example, under the God area I decided that getting to know more about God is a priority. After you’ve completed this second tier or level, this becomes your “priority list”.
Now that you know what your priorities are, you can take action. Well, maybe not yet. You still need to know what action to take. For each of the priorities, come up with one, two, a dozen actions that will help you make progress towards that goal or priority. For example, in my list I have a priority of Improve My Marriage. What action(s) can I take to show that it is indeed a priority to me? I put Date My Wife as an action item. This allows my wife and I to get away from the kids (not that we don’t like our kids), to change scenery, to talk about life, reconnect with each other and generally goes a long way to improving our marriage. Writing this down helps me to remember it throughout the year.
Here is the list in “list” form to demonstrate that mind mapping is not necessary:
- Know God Better
- Read the Bible (daily)
- Study the Bible for life application
- Spend time in prayer (daily)
- Serve God
- Know God Better
- Improve My Marriage
- Date my wife
- Education: read books, watch videos, go to events, etc. Do things which will lead to a better understanding of what makes a great marriage.
- Be a Better Parent
- Improve My Marriage
- Self Improvement / Marketability
- Finish earning my degree
- Technical blogging in my field
- Work With Excellence
- Self Improvement / Marketability
This isn’t a complete list, but should demonstrate the concept.
2) Planning the List
Now comes the action, right!? Almost, but not quite. We need to have a plan of action, know what action to take, before we can move in the right direction. I suggest having daily planning sessions during which you review the list you’ve written out. This could be in the evening, planning your next day or could be a “first thing in the morning” ritual to be prepared for the current day. Start by cross referencing your existing schedule to see if there are any intersections with your priority list. I have a job, like many people, so obviously my schedule is highly likely to include a lot of stuff that falls under my Career area. Beyond that, however, identify some actions from your priority list that may fit into your day and schedule them. One of my priorities is to Know God Better and one of the actions for that is to Read the Bible (daily). I should schedule a time during this day to sit down and read my Bible. If you proactively plan your day out and fill it with things that you say are a priority, then your priorities won’t fall into the trash bin of lost New Year’s Resolutions.
3) Living the List
Ready, set, go! Now you have a plan of action and a schedule to achieve it. Try to stick to your schedule. Eliminate unnecessary distractions. Behave as if the priorities on your list, the actions that you’ve scheduled, are actually a priority to you. If they are important to you, then you should want to do them. Fight against all of the senseless things that life throws at you to prevent you from achieving your goals. Now, if something comes up which is important (i.e. medical emergencies) then by all means give them the appropriate attention they deserve. There is a plethora of information out there to teach you how to do this, so I will not attempt to here. Besides, I’m not actually all that great at it myself. This article is largely for my own benefit.
4) Measuring the List
Finally, we need some way to measure whether or not we are making steps towards our goal, that we are actually living our life according to the priorities that we have established. Review the actions that you took throughout the day. Did you complete everything on your schedule? Did you succumb to distraction? How do you feel about what you accomplished this day? I have started keeping a journal, as has been suggested by many before me. I highly recommend it, if for no other purpose than to keep track of what you are doing throughout the day. You could even combine the measuring session with the planning session. Start by reviewing your day and then use the information you’ve gleaned to plan your next day.
Daily review is good, but I think you should also take it another step. Once a month take some time to review what you’ve accomplished. This larger scale review may help you to identify if you are straying from the path. It may also indicate that you need to adjust your original priority list, which is perfectly fine. This is, after all, your list. Finally, if you’ve followed this pattern for an entire year, you should have a ton of data at the end of the year to decide if you’ve correctly prioritized your year.
Well, as I mentioned above, this article is for me too. I haven’t actually achieved priority list nirvana, but I would like to. Starting now. Good luck to you and your list making. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. Do you have any additions or suggestions for improvement? Thanks for reading.