How To Set Priorities: Start with clarity about what matters most

Setting Priorities

I want to write a bunch on this blog in 2015 about the notion of setting priorities, because I think it’s one of the most interesting aspects of human existence (sorry to oversell that), especially as it gets ramped up and more people have more responsibilities and social and technology and yadda yadda yadda insert your own narrative here. Your day — every day — basically comes down to a series of choices about what you need to do and what you want to do. Close to 45 percent might be habit, yes, but ultimately you’re setting priorities based on a complex web of factors. Problem is, I think often people get misguided in this sense. They believe hierarchy means too much — which is an attitude probably never going away — and so they allow themselves to get stressed out at work because, as we all know, at work everything is a priority to everyone, so if you get an edict from someone who out-ranks you, you immediately prioritize that. (People should contextualize what’s important a bit more, but remember — most managers aren’t great.)

So the question is: how do you set priorities? It’s a very deep, nuanced question — but here’s a start.

This simple article from Fast Company talks about “having clarity on what’s important to you.” This is a little bit similar to the idea of an “Essentialist” movement, where people only focus on the real value-adds in their life. (It’s also similar to the idea of using analytics and lists to make yourself more productive.)

The idea is simple, but often simple ideas have a ton of power. Basically, you get one life. (Insofar as we know right now.) It’ll probably be about 80 years, give or take, but it could also end tomorrow. We have no idea. You typically do need a job, yes, especially in capitalist societies — and that will take up about 1/3 of your time (if not more). You also need to sleep, and that too takes up about 1/3 of your time (if not more/less). So there’s your remaining 33 percent. In between that and work — your waking hours — you need to determine what to do. You need to figure out your priorities.

It seems like the most logical place to start would be to ID exactly who you are and what you want to give to the world. For example, maybe you’re a:

  • Middle manager
  • Father
  • Son
  • Brother
  • Beer Home Brewer

This doesn’t describe me, but I’m sure it describes a lot of guys. If I had to list my own “Who am I?” for 2015, I’d say:

  • Husband
  • Son
  • In-Law
  • Employee
  • Blogger
  • Runner
  • Podcaster

That’s a lot, but it’s still less than the 900 things you may be asked to do at work in a given week. So if I know those are my primary commitments, then I can sit down and think like this:

  • What can I do to be a better husband?
  • Even with distance, how can I be a better son or in-law?
  • How can I maximize my ROI at work?
  • What can I do to this blog to get it more of an audience and a more connected one?
  • How can I get up to 13 miles per weekend?
  • How can I make a podcast that people actually care about?

If I start charting each of those questions and come up with a few plans — visit parents X-amount of times, do Y-amount of things with wife, convert blog to, etc, etc. — then I’m essentially determining, “These are my priorities for this period of time.”

Yes, you will get busy. Other things will come up. This happens to everyone. (It’s also why some corporate executives think the idea of mise-en-place is bullshit.)

But the goal here is pretty simple: instead of running around and construing everything as a top-order priority — because your boss said so, or your wife said so, or your mom said so, or whatever — make a list and determine who you are, what you want to be, and how you can focus to do that.

This will set initial clarity, and it may make those moments of “This has to be done by yesterday” seem a little easier to handle.

Ted Bauer