How Do You Set Priorities?

At any given moment, how do you decide what you will do? Maybe you will read a book, or play music, or pay bills, or make a meal. To help you with that decision, you might have an explicit (or maybe just a subconscious) list of priorities.

Setting priorities can be a tricky thing. You need a mix of short-term, medium-term, and long-term tasks or goals, and you might need to have some time set aside for no goals at all, for pure recreation or to recharge. But how do you determine what is most important, and how does that change from moment to moment?

How do you set priorities?

Related questions: How do you define success? How can we turn ideas into actions? What is important?

7 thoughts on “How Do You Set Priorities?”

  1. While we must sometimes set priorities on the fly, I try to not have this be the case most of the time. I believe it is much better to be planful in setting priorities.

    To give credit where credit is due, when I set priorities, I do so as Stephen Covey of Franklin Covey fame would have advised. Covey’s system would have you know the main roles you fill in life (for me that is spouse, home economist, director, friend) while also attending to four core capacities (i.e. physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual).

    Covey would then tell you to do “first things first,” and complete one thing during the upcoming week to advance each role/core capacity in some important way. In fact, I have a set of long-term-, intermediate-, and short-goals for each of my roles/core capacities. My weekly priorities are the short-term goals within each.

    For instance, on New Years Day I hope to order seeds for my 2018 garden. While I have long-term goals for my home economist role that have to do with me and heirloom gardening, this year an intermediate goal is to simply grow a garden that is beautiful in its diversity (i.e many varieties of nearly each vegetable) and bountiful. So a priority for this week — a short-term goal — is to comb through my seed catalogs and come up with a near-final list of vegetables and flowers I want to grow in 2018.

    Sometimes I allow a couple priorities for a role/core capacity or two. But do this too often and you’re not generating priorities, you’re simply writing up long to-do lists. So I try to check myself.

    One advantage for this approach to setting priorities is that over an extended period of time you get to see old priorities gather into patterned sets of accomplishments. For example, at the end of 2018 I will see a timeline of things I did to create a successful garden, learn more about heirloom gardening, learn about uses of new foods in my diet, etc.

    Happy priority-setting.

  2. The new year is a time for reflection and, for many, resolutions. Why is that? The new year, to many, is a chance to change our lives for the better. It’s a reset button.

    The most popular resolutions in our society are physical: lose weight, exercise more. When I was younger, I found myself making these types of resolutions, and sometimes I followed through. Physical health is a worthy goal, but I think I my goal was focused on the external, on beauty rather than health, on social acceptance rather than what I really wanted for myself. I was looking outward rather than inward.

    Now I try to stay focused on what makes me happy and fulfilled on a deeper level. I try to prioritize writing and music by giving them much more time in my weekly schedule. I try to prioritize relationships with those close to me. I try to prioritize challenging myself and discovering new things. I say “I try” because it’s not easy to navigate the distractions and the minutiae of life. Most importantly, it’s not easy to keep focused and forge ahead with all of the negative in our political/social climate.

    There are days when I fail to focus on my priorities. I’ve had a long string of them lately. But with every new day, new week, and new month, I try to reflect and reset to focus on the priorities once again. I try again.

  3. From February onward, 2017 was a disastrous personal year for me. While my modus operandi has always included short- and long-term goals, right now I prioritize by triage. It’s really the only way for me to muscle through and maintain any sense of stability in my life — and any sense that when I come out on the other side of this, I’ll be able to get back to prioritizing my own personal happiness and sense of personal fulfillment.

    When I have to go into triage mode — as I’ve had to on several other occasions previously in life, dictated by difficult situations over which I had little control (especially a prolonged illness) — I take care of what can let me take care of the rest of it, to the best of my ability: my gainful employment. I’m on my own completely without any safety net, as it’s been for my entire adult life. Now that I’ve secured a stable job, I make sure that I don’t fuck it up. I am in a position of some responsibility beyond my role as professor and I take that administrative position seriously, so I do what I can to at least meet expectations and when I can to excel beyond that of my predecessor in this position, a man who quite frankly did a shitty job but could get away with it because 1) he’s charming and 2) he’s a man. I do not like to make my job my first priority, but without that job, I would have no light at the end of this triage tunnel.

    Second to that is making sure that I can remain as healthy as possible, which is a challenge for me with the enormous amount of stress in my life and my history with clinical depression. When I feel overwhelmed, I can gently tell people “no” and retreat to take care of myself for as much time as I can steal, even if it’s 15 minutes. It’s important to consciously, mindfully do this, too. I carved out some time between Thanksgiving and mid-December to plant bulbs that will come up in the spring and do some work in my garden. My boyfriend and I had a fight the night before Thanksgiving because of how overwhelmed I feel about certain aspects of our relationship, and I basically told him that I needed two weeks in my yard. The weather was mild, I’d purchased the bulbs in late summer when I actually had disposable income, and I was damned if I was going to let them rot and freeze in the garage all winter. Just reclaiming some time for myself and doing so in a way that was specific, mindful, and deliberate — all while doing something I love doing — was an enormous tool in helping me cope. There were days when I brought my phone outside with me so that I could set an alarm for 45 minutes — all the time I had that day — and that alone was enough to help me recharge.

    Then there are my cats. They are completely dependent on me so they are right there at the top of my priorities.

    Everything else — absolutely everything, from my boyfriend (who doesn’t live with me and who struggles mightily with many problems of his own) to my failing parents who live 1200 miles away and who are in deep denial, even to social engagements — is parsed out according to what my emotional and physical resources (and sometimes financial resources) can afford.

    The one thing I do solely for myself, that’s completely personal that matters to me a lot, is writing about college hockey. It’s not just the writing, which I love doing, but it’s the social aspect of it that I cling to. That is really a buoy for me, so I make sure that I don’t fuck that up, too.

    If I weren’t in triage mode, I would be prioritizing things differently. During this two-week Christmas “break” from work, I have no less than four significant projects that need to be something close to finished the first day faculty report back to work, and that’s in addition to prepping for my four winter semester classes.

    When some of the nonsense I’m going through right now dissipates — probably in May, when winter semester ends — I will take a few days to reassess things and begin to think of how to approach prioritization in a post-triage world, but for now, triage is all that I have.

    1. Dear Paula, it’s May, 2019 and I just read your comments above. Looks to me you were in a rough place and I hope things are looking up for you.

      One of the things I hope for when I participate in this blog is to get some feedback from others. I hope you do as well.

      I suspect I’m older than you and would like to give some fatherly advice. But I’ve learned from experience that’s not what I’m here for. My job is to be a good listener and to really be present to others. I know it’s late, but I hope you see my reply, and know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. As a priest I know likes to say at the end of Mass, “God is with you” (as opposed to God be with you).

      1. p.s. teaching four classes and having administrative responsibilities seems like an awfully heavy load, don’t you think? I hope and pray you have more free time now.

  4. Good question. I struggle with setting priorities, like most people, I guess. Michael, you sound far beyond me in this regard. Yet, somehow, with God’s prompting, I seem to eventually end up in a good place. I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s famous prayer – I won’t repeat it now – if you aren’t familiar with it, google it.

    So prayer is a big help to me in setting priorities. So is my wife. At one point many years ago, I dreamed of selling everything and becoming a missionary in the Third World. My spiritual advisor asked me if my wife would agree to do this and the answer was no, perhaps even “hell no.” 🙂

    Looking back on my life, I’m 75 now, I often feel like I’ve underachieved. But, then I think that
    God is not impressed with what the world calls “success.” So instead of trying to achieve great things, now I just try to fulfill my God-given vocation: Husband, Father, Grandfather, Brother, Friend, Neighbor.

    Happy Holidays to any of you who celebrate this time of year. And to the many who don’t, I hope and pray for all the best for you and your loved ones.

  5. I use a system for prioritizing my responsibilities that has worked for me for thirty years. I jot down the things I need to do on little slips of paper when I should be doing something else. For some reason, those are my most creative and inspired moments. Then I lose the little slips of paper. This works perfectly. If it was important, I will remember it, and if not, I’ll wait until it bubbles up again in my next creative upwelling.

    In all seriousness, I’ve never been a good prioritizer of my own goals. I have passions and interests, but I’m not great at systematically pursuing them – there are too many things to discover! The new, the shiny, and the beautiful all distract me, and soon I’m off photographing frost-covered windows or reading articles on newly-discovered fossil oviraptors. I’m much better at prioritization and follow-through when my goals are mapped out for me (at school or at work), and I have a sneaking suspicion that this may not really count, since others are setting the priorities.

    That said, I did accomplish a number of things last year: major home improvements, another section of the A.T. hiked, a new position at work. The key factors were 1) involving someone else in the goal, either to help move it forward or as someone to “report to,” and 2) having the discipline to return to the project, even when I didn’t feel like it. I value creativity highly, but I can’t advance my creativity without a structure to hang it on. I also tend to devalue my own creative time…it’s usually last in line, after cleaning the cats’ litter boxes. It deserves better. Knowing all this, and understanding the approaches that work for me, is encouraging in and of itself.

    Thanks for the question – what a great reflection to start off the New Year.

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