In any good story, characters experience a lightbulb moment (or two). Something happens to spark clarity. Whether it’s Jerry Maguire quitting his job and grabbing the goldfish on the way out or Simba accepting that he needs to go home and protect his pride, it’s the moment when the character gets their priorities straight. Suddenly, everything makes sense.
Prioritization is the process of deciding what’s most important and giving those things the right amount of attention and energy. It’s getting clear on who you are, what you want, and how you want to live your life. You find fresh energy, focus and excitement. You feel free to say no. You accept that you have limits, and you make the most of them.
Easier said than done, right? Yes, it’s a process. But you can learn the skill of prioritization, and I promise it’ll be worth it.
The Importance of Prioritization
There are a million things competing for your time, money and attention. And since you have limited amounts of all three, you need to be careful about how you’re spending them. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but learning the skill of prioritization could be life-changing for you. Literally!
Having clear priorities will help you:
- Create life balance. How can you know if you’re spending your time on the right things if you don’t know what the right things are? If you want to experience life balance, you’ve got to get clear on what’s most important to you.
- Manage your time and money. Dave Ramsey likes to say, “I can tell by looking at your bank account and your calendar what you care about. Because that’s where you spend your time and your money.” The truth is, we spend our money and our time on things that matter to us. Having clear priorities will help you manage your time and clean up your budget, which will keep you from wasting resources on things that drain you.
- Make decisions. Clarifying your priorities is like making a few big decisions that help you make a thousand other decisions. Once you know what’s most important, you’ll have an easier time saying no to things that don’t matter.
- Feel confident. After prioritizing, you’ll live with a deeper sense of purpose. You’ll wake up each morning with clear objectives about what you want to produce or accomplish that day.
- Feel less stressed. If you don’t focus on your own goals, it will be easy to let the schedules of everyone around you dictate your actions. Before you know it, you’ll be putting out fires for everyone else and wondering what the heck you want to do. Also, if your priorities aren’t straight, you might spend your time on the wrong things—like putting work before family or TV before health. You’ll only make your stress worse.
How to Prioritize Your Life
There are dozens of self-help hacks and tools for prioritization out there, and many of them are great! But before we get tactical, I want to zoom out and get the 30,000-foot view of what you want out of life. Because if you haven’t made the right decisions about the big things, it doesn’t really matter what decisions you make about the small things.
1. Take responsibility for how you spend your time.
If you want to understand your priorities and live a balanced life, you’ve got to take responsibility for how you spend your time. No matter how stressed or busy or overwhelmed you feel, you must understand that you are in control of what goes on your calendar (there are exceptions, of course—life happens!).
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Nobody else will choose your priorities for you. That’s your job. And while it is a great idea to talk through the process with a friend—and especially your spouse—it comes down to you giving yourself permission to take back control of your time and decide what you want your life to look like.
2. Decide what’s most important.
All things are not created equal. We all have a lot of good things, great things and even important things going on. But it’s not just about doing important things. We have to prioritize what’s most important in life.
So, try this: Get out a piece of paper or a journal and write down all of the things going on in your life. Your obligations, relationships, hobbies—anything that takes time and energy. Then, from that list, narrow it down to the top 10 things that matter most to you. Don’t worry about the order right now—just choose the 10 most important things. It might be family, faith, health, career, starting a business, having a baby, applying to grad school, or something else.
3. Use the Prioritization Pyramid.
Okay, here’s where we start to get tactical. You’ve identified your 10 priorities, but right now they’re all existing at the same level of importance. I want you to picture your priorities all in a horizontal line, like this:
If your priorities all exist on the same level, then when two competing opportunities come up, you won’t have a framework for making decisions—they’ll all seem equally important!
It’s time to assign a hierarchy to your priorities. Instead of a horizontal list, I want you to use a pyramid to rank your priorities—with the most important things on top and the less important on the bottom.
Now, when two competing things pop up, you can use this as a filter for making decisions and choose the opportunity that’s in line with your higher priority!
By the way, you might need to play around with this before you really land what feels right. That’s okay. This is a tool for you to use—not a contract.
4. Divide your priorities into specific time periods.
Now we’re going to take a closer look at how to plan our daily lives in light of our priorities. You see, we all have the top 10 priorities in life that help create a regular rhythm for us. But we need to break it down into smaller pieces: priorities for a season, for a week and for a day.
For each of these, you’re going to limit yourself to just a few. And by few I mean three to four. We are way too busy in our culture, so part of prioritization is saying goodbye to unrealistic expectations about how much you can get done. Also, with each smaller measure of time, your priorities are going to become more specific.
Choose priorities for a season.
Your priorities will change based on the season you’re in. Let’s say you’re an accountant. You can expect work to take higher priority during tax season. Or maybe you’re getting ready to have your first baby. Having a newborn is going to put some other priorities on hold, like brunch every weekend with your girlfriends. For each season of life you’re in (it could be several months or even an entire year), choose three to four big, overarching priorities that you plan to give more time, attention and money to.
Let me give you a few examples of what this might look like:
- Find and move to a new house.
- Prepare for your annual review and a possible promotion.
- Coach one of your kids’ teams.
Choose priorities for your week.
Your weekly priorities will change based on what you’ve got going on at work, with your kids or in your social life. Let’s say you’ve been training for a marathon and you’re one week away from race day. You probably want to prioritize extra sleep and healthy meals that week.
Once again, choose three to four overarching priorities for your week. Here are a few ideas:
- Prepare for your presentation at work.
- Do spring cleaning.
- Celebrate a birthday or anniversary.
Choose priorities for each day.
Knowing your priorities for your week will help you know what your priorities are for each day. These are specific action items that will help you make your goals a reality. The trick here is to not overcommit yourself to work you can’t actually accomplish. You should still limit yourself to three to four items a day unless you have a lot of extra time on your hands.
- Take your kids to their dentist appointment.
- Renew your car insurance.
- Go to bed at 9 p.m. so you’re rested for your presentation at work.
5. Say no to distractions.
Once you’re clear on your priorities, you’ve got to protect your time by sayings no to distractions. This is an ongoing process because distractions are everywhere! From the moment we wake up, we’re bombarded with notifications and requests and people shouting for our attention. In our world of instant connection and overstimulation, it’s possible to be distracted every single moment of the day.
Staying focused in a frantic world is a choice. Don’t reprioritize what’s most important to you based on the last-minute requests from other people. Don’t let good opportunities derail you from the best opportunities. Don’t say yes when you really want to say no.
By the way, it’s important to recognize that we say yes to distractions for all sorts of reasons. Maybe we don’t want to disappoint anyone, or we feel pressure to achieve, or we want to be the hero. Or maybe it’s a combination of unhealthy motivations and a true desire to grow and experience life. What about you? Why do you say yes? And what keeps you from saying no?
And always remember: when you say no to something, it frees you up to say yes to what matters most.