Priorities In Action

New Year’s resolutions are powerful for helping us change, but thinking of or writing down a resolution is not enough – you need a concrete plan for many, tiny specific, realistic, daily actions to successfully change your behavior. Previous newsletters have addressed the how’s of behavior change (see Building Better Habits, Getting The New Year Off to a Good Start, and many more) but this month let’s look at techniques for managing your desired change and other life activities – in other words, your priorities.

Knowing what is and is not a priority is challenging for many people. Identifying which goals are worth pursuing or which tasks need to be done next or even at all can be difficult. Many people become so overwhelmed by a long to-do list that they just give up doing anything or on sorting tasks based on importance.

But no matter how daunting identifying priorities may seem, it isn't easiest to just give up and just do whatever is right in front of you or nothing at all. (There are times when it makes sense to just do whatever is right in front of you, such as when clearing out a hoarded home, or you have so much to do that doing any productive activity is progress and will get you started.)

Here's how setting priorities can help your daily life:
– help focus on doing your most important tasks first, increasing the likelihood that your most important tasks will be done
– make determining which activities are not worth your time easier
– helps show which demands from others make sense and makes saying no easier
– allow you to function with less stress and feel better about yourself

There are several approaches to setting priorities and several systems for tracking them. Let's look at the big picture first, then at systems for using them.

Setting priorities is in part a matter of determining what is most important to you. I tend to think that health and safety should be at the top of everyone's list, but not everyone shares this view. People put many other values in front of health and safety, such as making a lot of money, being famous, pursuing some major goal or political agenda, taking care of others, or practicing their addiction.

External priorities, such as paying taxes, participating in community or charitable organizations, going places others want, may or may not be your priorities, and you should think long and hard before allowing optional ones to push out any of your personal priorities. These situations require making hard choices and being able to stick up for yourself.

Whatever your priorities, balance and self-care are important elements for a happy and healthy life. Balance is achieved by not letting any one activity push out other important elements, and by working on all your priorities in small increments every day. Working on tasks in 15 minute segments may keep everything in your life moving forward. Of course, there will always be times that require working on tasks for more protracted periods but these should not pre-empt self-care which is essential to staying good shape to do all that matters.

Asking yourself “what do I want to accomplish this year, or in 5 or 10 years?” can help clarify your goals and priorities. Another approach to identifying your priorities is to consider what would enable living as well as possible within the circumstances that you can control.

Another aspect of setting priorities is managing the business of life:
– which tasks have unpleasant consequences, such as fines for late taxes or bills, or an arrest warrant for not responding to a jury summons, if deadlines are not met? (health and safety tasks fit in this category)
– which activities have positive or pleasurable outcomes if timelines are met? (self-care fits here too)
– which actions advance your important goals or values?
– which activities move your life in a constructive, positive direction and which have an adverse impact?
– which tasks are needed for maintenance? (housekeeping, car care, equipment and clothing care, and networking, to name only a few)

Focusing on constructive behavior is difficult because we forget the rewards of positive behavior and are lured by the appeal and ease of non-productive behavior, such as watching TV, playing videogames, or engaging in an addiction. The best way to prevent losing precious, non-retrievable time to these pursuits is to stay continually aware of your priorities and aspirations. This likely means a daily review of your priorities and why they are important to you; any goal that requires changing established behaviors, such as overcoming an addiction, requires intensive focus on the benefits of change. You may think that you are so totally aware of the importance of your goal that reviewing your motivators for wanting it so often is unnecessary, but this is false – without a constant, daily reminder and focus on why you want to go through this struggle, beating an addiction or changing an established habit is nearly impossible.
Re-visiting your (not someone else’s) reasons why it matters to _______ (get organized, stop smoking or drinking, lose weight, get a degree, etc.) every day is essential to achievement. Bumps in the road discourage us, innumerable advertising messages encourage harmful behavior, other people encourage indulging, so frequent reminders of the benefits of change are needed. To successfully keep your priorities in mind, write down your list of motivators and put it where you can easily see it and add to it frequently. CBT weight loss books recommend checking your motivators list twice daily, especially in the initial stages, because over-eating is so challenging to overcome. The more entrenched any adverse behavior is, the more often you need to review your reasons for wanting to change.

Once you know what your priorities are, keeping track of them is relatively easy.
There are several good systems for keeping track of priorities:
– an A, B, C or a 1, 2, 3 system that classifies to-do list items based on their importance
– a location system that places top priority tasks in one area of your list, second priority in another, and so on
– color-coding to show the importance of each task at a glance; this, to me, is the simplest and easiest to follow as color is more readily perceived than writing

For each day’s to-do list, the priority sequence should be:

When assigning a priority to a task, beware of changing its priority just because you had to carry it forward from a previous day, or you’re annoyed with yourself because it wasn’t done. Learn from whatever happened and move on. Tasks do not become more important because they are carried forward, nor are they more likely to get done because you get upset with yourself (less, actually). Create a backup plan for how you will cope with obstacles – rather than berating yourself for not following your plan, learn from them how to overcome barriers.

Whatever priority tracking system you use, keep only one to-do list. Keeping track of multiple lists scattered over many pieces of paper or in different notebooks is a logistical nightmare that is unlikely to succeed. Whether you get a professionally designed planner (read Setting Up a New Planner {December 2011} to learn to use it) or a tiny spiral notebook, have only one calendar (prevents double-booking) and one to-do list (prevents tasks from getting lost).

Need examples how to apply all this in your life? E-mail me and we can hash it out.

These links may help make your resolutions more effective:

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”  Carl Sandburg, poet (1878-1967)

© Gloria Valoris, 2014

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