My mother was chronically late, perpetually lost and hopelessly disorganized. Of course, these three traits were not unrelated. I mean it's only logical that spending 30 extra minutes searching for your parked car, or winding up in a ditch after taking a wrong turn (yes, that actually happened...more than once!), or locking your keys in the car would throw a wrench into your day and put you a bit behind schedule. Unfortunately for Mom, these were near daily occurrences. Indeed, her lack of proper planning frequently led to some comically disastrous outings. (Comical in retrospect, that is.) And while it’s true that her spontaneity resulted in some truly hilarious adventures, it also created a lot of needless stress and frustration. Not every outcome was something to laugh about, either. The point is, getting desired results requires more than just knowing where you hope to end up. You also need to identify your starting point, carefully plan the route you will take to reach your destination, and ensure you have the proper and adequate resources necessary to complete the journey. Successfully living your priorities is no exception.
In his book Atomic Habits
(which I highly recommend), James Clear points out that many of us fail to create effective habits because we focus too much on WHAT we hope to achieve rather than on WHO we want to become. Instead of saying, “I want to lose 20 pounds”, we should say “I want to be a healthy person.” Our priorities don’t just reflect what we want but state who we are. A healthy person is someone who makes diet and exercise a priority. That’s who they are. This is what it looks like when we plug this into our planning formula:
- Where do I want to go? I want to be a healthy person.
- Where am I starting? I am 20 pounds overweight.
- How will I get there? I will eat better and exercise regularly.
- What resources do I need to take with me? I need time to exercise, menu plan/grocery shop, prepare healthy meals; I need money to join the gym, buy new running shoes, hire a trainer; I need a healthy environment conducive to exercising, cooking healthy meals and sleeping soundly; I need people to keep me accountable, encourage me, consult with, etc.
This plan should guide my actions. If I am truly living my priority of being a healthy person, I will invest some time in planning healthy meals for the week ahead so that a busy day won't drive me to McDonald’s for fast food on the way home. I will spend my lunch hour with the friend who is willing to go for a walk with me instead of the co-worker who entices me to come check out the new burger joint down the street (or I will convince the co-worker to go for a walk instead). I will forego dinner out to be able to pay for my gym membership. I will spend my evening decluttering my bedroom and turn in early rather than stay up all night to binge-watch old episodes of Man Vs. Food
. Having a clear and decisive plan will serve as my roadmap whenever the temptation arises to veer off course.
Sounds pretty obvious, right? Well, maybe not so much as you might think. Consider your volunteer efforts. Are you easily guilted into volunteering for causes because the person asking for your help is especially intimidating or persistent or has big puppy-dog eyes...or do you agree because it’s a cause that aligns with your priorities? Do you spend money you should be saving for your priority needs on things that contradict your chosen identity? Are you procrastinating on creating the environment you need to achieve your definition of success by engaging in activities that further delay it? It’s easy to overlook all the ways we can unintentionally sabotage our progress when we haven’t taken the time to really map out our priorities and what living them fully requires.
Here are a few tips to help you put your priorities into practice:
- Declutter your environment. Let go of a few keepsakes or items you might use someday to give yourself more room to live in, work in, achieve your goals in, and create new memories. If your spaces are “yelling” at you to clean them up, taking the time to do so first will make it easier for you to focus on the things that matter most.
- Create a budget. Tracking your spending will help you ensure your financial priorities are in the right place. Making it visual creates a powerful tool to keep you on track.
- Acknowledge your limitations/play to your strengths. Not everyone makes a good leader, but you can put your efforts into being the best follower you can be instead. Don’t agree to chair the committee if you’re better at setting up the chairs.
- Look for hidden opportunities. Fostering relationships doesn’t have to cost you money. Don’t spend your hard-earned college funds on going out with friends. Study together or start a book club with them instead. Dieting? Visit an art gallery or go to a play with your spouse on date night rather than a meal out.
- Give gifts that reflect who you are. Consider gifts of shared experiences, much-needed assistance, your talent, your time, or a donation to a common cause. By doing so, you are giving a gift of yourself without compromising your principles or inadvertently giving them more “stuff” that may not align with theirs.
- Delegate tasks to create time for your priorities. Hire a gardener so that you have more time on the weekends to build a tree house with your son. Arrange a carpool for your daughter’s soccer practice to free up a few days each week for going to the gym.
The biggest benefit to being organized is saving time and effort for doing more truly meaningful stuff. But living a meaningful life requires a plan. Most of us are pulled in so many different directions on a daily basis that we can easily end up spinning our wheels if we don't have one. Taking the time to understand our priorities and organize our time, budgets, environments and relationships accordingly are key to living purposefully. There are no right or wrong priorities...but there is a right-for-you or wrong-for-you way to live them. With a little intention and focus, even living your priorities can be easy peasy!
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