“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Often it’s the urgent and seemingly urgent, the obligatory, annoying, or distracting that receive the bulk of our time, energy, and attention while the truly important things sit on the back burner. Until we learn to identify the difference between the important [the things that move us toward our goals and dreams and help us to manifest our ideal life vision] and the urgent [paying the bills, getting an oil change, the mundane must do’s of ordinary life] we will make little headway in attaining our desired outcomes. We will continue to feel adrift, to live with the sense that some profoundly important thing is missing, and to struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in our lives.
Learning to prioritize what is truly important can be one of the most difficult concepts to master. Primarily because we are not often taught how to identify what the truly important is and therefore substitute the urgent for the important. What’s the difference between the truly important and the urgent?
The truly important things bring personal fulfillment, meaning, and joy to our lives. The urgent, which is often mistaken for the important, are the mundane, ordinary tasks that often consume our days. Things like grocery shopping, errands, oil changes, paying bills, checking email; the list of seemingly urgent things that land on our to do lists is endless.
By no means am I encouraging anyone to disregard their responsibilities or saying that the everyday must do’s are unimportant. These are the obligations of life, of personal liberty, and independence. These things must be done. These things, however, will not bring deep meaning and personal fulfillment. The goal then, is to prioritize in such a way that we make room for the truly important.
Here are five tools to help prioritize the truly important:
- Keeping Agreements: What we are talking about here is learning to take the agreements we make with ourselves seriously. Most of us are very good at keeping the agreements we make with others. We are so good at it, in fact, that we often break agreements we make with ourselves in order to serve the needs of others first. On the surface this can seem virtuous, however, in the long term, it can lead to resentment, disappointment, and too often bitterness. We have all done it and experienced, to some degree, those moments when we feel no one is taking care of us and all we do is take care of others. This is a prime example of not prioritizing the truly important and of not keeping the agreements we make with ourselves. When we keep our agreements with ourselves we improve our self esteem, confidence, and self-trust. We begin to trust our own abilities, to recognize our own competence and capability. Pay attention to the agreements you make with yourself, prioritize them, and above all, keep them!
- Reflection: One way to begin to recognize the truly important is reflection. Taking time each day to reflect on what brought joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and a sense of gratitude to us allows us to see what we need more of in our lives and also what we might need to eliminate. Reflection is simply the practice of paying attention to what’s arising for us as we go about the business of living and yet it is one of the most powerful practices we can implement in our lives.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is another extremely powerful tool for personal growth and is invaluable in the journey to learning to prioritize. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing one’s attention and focus fully to the present moment. It also means acknowledging and accepting the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations we are experiencing in the moment without attaching to them. We simply become aware. Awareness is the key to implementing change. By being mindful of what is arising for us in the present moment, be it our thoughts, feelings, or sensations in our bodies, we become conscious of the things that serve to bring fulfillment, meaning, and joy to our lives. We can then intentionally prioritize those things while beginning to eliminate what we can see is inessential, harmful, or not in service to the life we are creating for ourselves.
- Eliminating the inessential: Bruce Lee said, “It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” In order to make room for the things that matter most to us, those things that are truly important, we have to eliminate the things that do not move us toward the achievement of our goals, the fulfillment of our dreams, or the creation of our ideal life. When we view it as a form of decluttering it becomes easier to identify what is distracting and limiting us and more exciting to let those things go to make room for the life we truly want. By narrowing down the things and activities in our lives to the essential few, our priorities become clear and our gains become exponential.
- The Eisenhower Matrix: The Eisenhower Matrix is a highly effective, yet simple tool for prioritizing tasks and taking action. It gives you four possibilities for sorting tasks:
- Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately)
- Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later)
- Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else)
- Not urgent and not important (tasks you will delete or eliminate)
This method provides a simple framework for prioritizing tasks that allows us to take consistent action toward the things that matter most.
As we begin to implement these five simple, but powerful tools it’s important to keep in mind that prioritization is a skill and like all skills will improve with practice. Paying attention to what’s arising for us as we begin to utilize new tools and develop new skills allows us to remain in control of the process and to guide our own growth. Having the awareness of what is working and what isn’t gives us the ability to make micro adjustments along the way that keep us aligned with our values, purpose, and goals. Alignment with our core values, purpose and goals is what brings a sense of significance, meaning, and fulfilment to our lives.
Some deepening questions to consider as you learn to prioritize the truly important:
- What is arising for me in this moment?
- Where am I encountering resistance? And what’s causing it?
- Am I being curious about what’s arising or am I judging it?
- Am I prioritizing the things that move me toward my goals?
- What one thing can I do right now to improve my process?