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How to Prioritize Your Life and Work

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Are you feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do today, next week, this year? Is your level of stress increasing and your ability to cope plummeting as you struggle to fight the next fire and the next and the next? To improve quality of your life and work, you must prioritize you goals and tasks. And that begins with:

  • Believing in the importance of what you are doing or want to do; without a sense of relative importance, everything has the same priority
  • Making room in your daily schedule what you want to accomplish
  • Setting boundaries around what you add or remove from your list of priorities


Establish Importance

The goals and tasks that are important to you may change over the course of time. You may first seek a career for financial security, then move to quality of life or intellectual challenge. You may change your priorities as you add to or lose family and friends or as you complete one objective and move on to the next.

The Eisenhower time management quadrant may be helpful here, allowing you to give higher priority to the goals and tasks that are both urgent and important. 

Urgent Not Urgent
Important Urgent + Important Not Urgent + Important
Not Important Urgent + Not Important Not Urgent + Not Important

Never calculate urgency and importance solely on the amount of time you currently dedicate to meeting a priority. Sometimes, for example, providing food and shelter has greater urgency than a stronger priority like spending time with children—and sometimes acquiring bigger and more expensive shelter is merely an excuse. 

Importance is easier to assess if you ask these questions: 

  • “How long has this task or goal been on my to-do list?” If it remains on your list for weeks (months, years), you should consider crossing it off. Completion clearly has little or no affect on your life right now.
  • “Do I have control over the desired outcome?” If you answer “no,” stop. Cross that item off your list. Focus on what you can control.
  • “What will it take for me to succeed?” If you lack resources and training to succeed, gather the resources and training first. 
  • “What happens if I chose not to do it right now?” If there are no immediate consequences, consider removing the task from your list, downgrading its priority, or delegating it.


Establish a Schedule

Large goals are hard to achieve. By breaking goals (“increase revenue”) down into smaller daily tasks (“reach out to one former client each day”), you are more likely to succeed.

Contrary to what you might believe, no one is exactly sure how long the average adult can concentrate on a single task or goal. Estimates range from a few seconds to 20 minutes or over an hour. Concentration will also vary daily depending on the interest, urgency, importance, and difficulty of the individual tasks. You yourself know your own powers of concentration

On that basis: 

  • Break your day into blocks of time that reflect your ability to concentrate. Research has proven that both physically and mentally, you will benefit from frequent breaks and even a short nap between tasks.
  • Schedule on the most difficult task first, to prevent yourself from avoiding it altogether and to ensure it is completed. However, sometimes the easy tasks have a higher priority; for example, you might want to start the day with a quick project update to a demanding client or boss, so that you are not repeatedly interrupted for information.
  • Dedicate some blocks of time to relaxing, interacting with family and friends, exercising, meditating, or whatever keeps you connected, energized, and able to enjoy life.


Establish Boundaries 

Once you have established and scheduled your priorities, you must guard them. If you constantly adjust your priorities in response to every request, your decisions about importance and about schedule are worthless. To establish boundaries:

  • Learn to say “no.” Do not offer excuses or apologies; “no” is a complete sentence.
  • Learn to give a positive “no.” For example, “I cannot do that now but I will have time later this week” or “I now have three tasks; which would you like me to complete first?”
  • Delegate. A task may be important but are you the only one who can complete it? Delegation also gives your team a chance to grow and develops their commitment to company strategies.
  • Take charge. Set an agenda for meetings. If a meeting is rambling, bring it back to the topic. If people constantly interrupt you, set aside a time to speak with them their issues and demand an agenda first. 
  • Pass on your knowledge. Teach others how to prioritize, so that their sense of importance, ability to schedule, and understanding of boundaries is sharpened.

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Note: If you have thoughts of hurting yourself and/or others, please call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 immediately.

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