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.
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!).
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!