Where Logic Meets Love

A Practical Guide to Prioritizing Your Life

Thursday, February 23, 2012

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A Practical Guide to Prioritizing Your Life | Faith Permeating Life

You may remember last month when I told you I was drowning in my never-ending to-do list.

I recently hit upon one of the key problems I was struggling with when it came to accomplishing things: I was overwhelmed with responsibilities, but had no idea where to start or what could be cut out, if anything. As a result, I was letting myself be driven by other people's urgency or expectations or due dates.

I had in my mind this notion of life priorities: my faith, my health, my marriage, etc. I knew the parable of the rocks, the pebbles, and the sand. But I couldn't figure out how to actually "live out" these priorities in my day-to-day life. There was a disconnect between my larger life goals and my daily to-do items.

The strategy I created probably isn't a new one, but it was a breakthrough for me.

The idea came from the work I do in student learning assessment. Ideally, each course should have its own "learning outcomes," or goals for what a student should be able to know or do by the time he or she finishes the course. But those course outcomes need to "map" onto the larger program's learning outcomes, which in turn need to map onto the college's learning outcomes.
  • So a course might have the outcome that a student can properly cite sources in a research paper,
  • which maps to a program goal that students will be able to critically review literature by synthesizing research from multiple sources,
  • which maps to a college goal of turning out graduates who are skilled researchers and writers.
(These are just off the top of my head, so there may be very good reasons these aren't ideal learning outcomes. Just roll with me here.)

Here's how I applied this idea to my life priorities:

1. First, I made a giant list of everything I needed to do, felt I should do, or wanted to do. It ranged from things I wanted to do that night to things I wanted to accomplish in the next month or two, from large things like "Start investing" to minor tasks like "Repair my hat." I ended up with about 20 items. I put these into a single column in a spreadsheet.

2. I made a second column called "Life goal." Here, I wrote down the larger reason this item was on my to-do list. I didn't start with a pre-defined list of goals, I just went through each item and asked myself what overarching goal this item was working toward. These ranged from "Peace of mind" to "Financial security" to "Continually learning." Quite a few items were things I wanted to do with my blog, but I decided that "Growing my blog" was not really a life goal; the larger reason was to provide quality content to improve people's lives.

3. I got rid of anything that didn't map to a life goal. I decided not to join the Easter choir at church even though it's basically expected of me because I'm a member of the regular Sunday choir. I'm part of that choir because singing every Sunday is important to my spiritual health, and the weekly rehearsals are a necessary commitment. But it didn't seem worthwhile to give up a second evening every week for the next six weeks when this would conflict with another goal (Health - going to bed on time) and would result, I knew, in me sitting there the entire rehearsal stewing about how our director has zero sense of time management or respect for our time. Not exactly bringing me closer to God, huh?

4. I assessed what was missing. For example, I had a bunch of items tied to the goal of Financial Security, whether taking Mike's paycheck to the bank or opening an IRA, but nothing about maintaining strong friendships, which is definitely a priority for me -- or I want it to be.

5. I added two more columns: Effort Required and Impact on Life Goal. I used High, Medium, and Low, though in retrospect it would have been easier for sorting just to use 1, 2, and 3. Then I rated each one on how much time/effort/energy it would require to get it done (or do it regularly), and how big of an effect it would have on my larger life goal. For example:
  • Going to bed on time requires a lot of effort on my part, but it also has a huge effect on my health and mood.
  • Promoting my blog's Facebook page would take a moderate amount of effort, but by itself would probably have a low impact on providing quality content for improving people's lives (less than, say, writing this blog post!).
I didn't put a huge amount of thought into the ratings, just decided "High or Low?" and if I couldn't decided, rated it a Medium.

6. Finally, I sorted my whole list by Impact on Life Goal (High to Low), then by Effort Required (Low to High). This means that I can start with the things that would take the least effort for the most payoff, all the way down to the things that would take the most effort for the least payoff. It also means that if I'm tired or only have a short amount of time, I can pick something that requires Low effort (whatever the impact) and cross it off the list.

I don't know if I will continue to use this whole spreadsheet on a daily basis -- it's still easier to jot down daily items in my notebook as I think of them -- but it's a helpful tool for tackling a huge, unwieldy list of items that are overwhelming me. I immediately felt more focused and purposeful after sorting my items.

It also gave me some needed perspective: Yes, it may suck that I have to contact State Farm again to figure out what happened with our mileage tracker, but I'm doing it because I value financial security for my family. Not just because I'm an adult and I "have" to do things like this. On the other hand, I shouldn't stress myself out too much about doing it when there are other things I can do that will have a bigger impact on our financial security than whatever money we'll save from the mileage tracker.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the things you need to get done, this might be something to try. It didn't take too much effort, and it had a big payoff for me! :)

How do you prioritize what to work on, and is it connected to your larger life goals? Share your own strategies in comments!


  1. I like how this exercise helped you rethink why you are doing something instead of turning into yet one more thing on your list of things to do.

    Good Job!

  2. @Jacki
    Thanks! It's definitely forced me to step back and ask if certain things are a worthwhile use of my time. Sometimes we do things because they're routine or they're expected of us, with no good reason behind them. This has put me much more in control of my own time and thus my own life.

  3. I like that idea, especially the part about looking for what is missing. I might steal that for myself, when I have time to make a to do list again:)

  4. That sounds very efficient and productive. At the moment I write to-do lists, and generally whatever is the most urgent I try to work on. However if I find it too boring I usually end up doing something else much lower in priority. As you can tell, this is unlikely to be the best way to get everything done. I think the rating on life goals and effort is very sensible. I would be keen to do a similar excel spreadsheet right now - but that's because I'd prefer to procrastinate on things that actually are more urgent, but boring :P

  5. @Lozzz123
    I would guess that most people take that kind of an approach to to-do lists, alternating between the most urgent and the most interesting tasks and not necessarily doing the most important.

    Even if making a spreadsheet like this feels like a form of procrastination, what I found was that as soon as I created it I felt compelled to do the top things on the list--I couldn't rationalize procrastinating on them once I'd logically laid out for myself why they were most important to do!

    Good luck! :)

  6. This is awesome! I did a similar thing writing down my goals and really scheduling my day-to-day based on those. It's definitely shaped the last few years of my life-- I've probably gotten far more done than I could have imagined.

    I wrote about it here:

  7. I wouldn't necessarily say I put anything down on my daily to do list that includes life goals. But I think I will use these tips to create one. But for my daily to do I have seperate sections to help me prioritize: top 3, cleaning, organizing, things to do while kids nap, stuff that is okay that I don't finish, do what I adore, and then a box for notes. It has helped me out A LOT.

  8. To tell you the truth, I went through this problem a few years ago to the extent of driving myself crazy (literally)...I was forced from that moment in time forward to truly assess myself and understand what I wanted vs needed and after 4 years of what I call my "strike", I have come to the conclusion (even if only for now) that all I need is my family and I do not put energy towards all the other extraneous stuff (material possessions) that does not suite any purpose.
    I live a very simplistic life with very little "things" and I am no longer motivated by much of anything except for spreading this message to others - especially my family.
    One more thing....I have found that somehow...and I think I know how....I need not put any effort into acquiring the things I must have (roof over my head and food)...and I have absolutely no fear of not having these basic material essentials ...I have faith that as a living human being I have a right to these basics in order to continue my life and my purpose.
    I like your idea of writing every down to get a clear picture of how you feel about things....maybe it would have come in handy a few days before I completely lost it :)

  9. Wow, this is defininetly a great way to prioritize your life and time. I can totally relate to the taking on one more thing at church because your expected to. I have to daily decide what I'm going to sign my name to. I'm such a yes yes I'll do it type of person that I realized I was getting burnt out. At one point I didn't want to do anything at all but then decided I would stick to things that aligned with my life goals. Like helping women live their best life. For me, when they asked me to help with women's ministry I said yes because it's something I'm passionate about. I guess it's just that, only picking the things we're passionate about and then saying no to the others. I'm happy I found your blog on Twitter! Happy writing!

    Vonae Deyshawn

  10. @Erik Kennedy
    Thanks for sharing! I've found that when I ask myself questions like that, I'm already doing most of the big things I want to be doing. The things still on the horizon are all the things I'm saving up money for. It's regaining the perspective on how my daily tasks contribute to my larger goals that I'm still working on.

  11. @melissa
    That sounds like a great system! I've seen similar organizers before--it sounds like you've figured out exactly which categories fit with the rhythm of your own daily life, which is excellent. I've heard several organization/productivity gurus say that there's no one perfect system, it's about testing and finding what works best for you. I think there's a lot of truth to that!

  12. @Shayna Abrams
    It can truly be overwhelming to structure your life around what you think you need to be doing or need to have. One of the podcasts I listen to, Motivation to Move, says that if you don't decide what your goals are and how to spend your time, someone else will decide for you. It can be tough to step back from wanting the approval of others or to fit somebody else's ideal, but it's very freeing to feel like you have control of what you're going to focus on in your life. It sounds like you've figured out what's most important to you--that's awesome.

  13. @Vonae Deyshawn
    Thanks and welcome to the blog! You're exactly right that by defining your priorities, you can better figure out what to say yes to. I'm a big proponent of the idea that you don't ever have "no choice" or "no time"--you are always making choices. If you choose to say yes to everything, then you may be placing a greater priority on other people's happiness than on your health or on the freedom to set your own agenda. Once you've figured out what your life goals are, it's easier to determine what your priorities should be, and then say yes or no accordingly.

  14. It sounds like you definitely got your priorities in order. I don't think I'm "settled" in enough to my life and what I want to commit myself to to need to do this. But I often find myself re-prioritizing on a pretty regular basis, kind of like a mental spread-sheet I guess, to keep myself from forgetting everything I need to do and why I need to do it. I am also not known for my organizational skills, so I feel like this would be a good way to at least stay organized mentally even when I may not be so much everywhere else.

  15. @Tricia
    The thing I like about this approach is that it's a bottom-up rather than top-down approach; that is, rather than saying, "What do I want my priorities to be?" and then attempting to draw up a schedule that matches it (which rarely works because life always gets in the way), you look at where you're currently spending your time and what you're trying to accomplish and figure out what that says about your priorities. Then you can make adjustments without having to overhaul your whole life.

    I've found, since doing this, that it causes me to run a mental check on every "I should..." thought. So if I catch myself thinking I should do something, I think, What goal is that going to help me accomplish? How much effort will it take and how big of an impact will it have? That's something you can do without needing to write anything down :)

  16. I really like this! I've done things that were kind of the same idea, but your way of structuring the spreadsheet makes the most sense to me.

  17. @Katie
    Thanks! If you try it out, let me know how it works for you!

  18. I enjoyed this because I like learning new ways to prioritize, organize, and clear my head! I'm also a fan of the prioritizing grid from "What Color Is Your Parachute?" - Dan and I have used it more than once to help us compare/contrast our individual priorities (for example, house projects) to decide what to tackle next. Here's a web-based version (http://www.successonyourownterms.com/prioritizing_grid.htm?items=10&) but I like the version in the book, with its explanation, the best.

  19. @Missy
    Cool, I've never seen that before! From what I understand of it, it makes sense, even if it doesn't tell you exactly how to choose one thing over another. I guess maybe I need to check out the book for myself :)

  20. @Jessica

    True - I think the idea is that, when presented with only 2 options, we can usually easily or quickly choose which one we prefer, rather than comparing each one to every other option (overwhelming). I recommend the book if you haven't read it -- I don't follow all its recommendations by any means, but I love the self-reflective exercises for helping you focus your career and professional goals!

  21. @Missy
    That makes sense. I've seen something similar used on the product surveys I take (like, which of these two features is more important to you? What about these two?). Definitely less overwhelming than trying to rank a whole long list from scratch.

    I'd heard of the book before but never had anyone specifically recommend I read it. Guess I'll have to now :)


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