It’s funny, we often hear the phrase “where are your priorities?” or “what are your priorities?” but we rarely hear “how do you prioritize?”
The question of ‘how’ you are figuring out what is most important is process oriented.
All three of these interrogative words assume one thing; that you are, in fact, identifying priorities to begin with. Sometimes we do so consciously, and sometimes we don’t.
There are different types of priorities. Task oriented priorities are the easiest to sort out, as they often come with an external deadline. The U.S. government suggests that we file our taxes by April 15; they would like that to be our priority. The bill collectors would like our payments made by a certain calendar date each month; their priority being bestowed upon us.
Task-oriented priorities at work or school are also fairly simple to navigate, much for the same reason. There is a deadline looming, or one task is a major part of the grade for a certain class. We pay more attention to the tasks that are either due soon or carry the most weight in the assessment of our performance.
Socially-driven priorities are those that we feel compelled to focus on because of social pressures such as cultural trends and friendships. People feel driven to participate in a variety of things that aren’t necessarily that important to them individually, to meet an outside expectation or social obligation.
Attending a party, using alcohol, and even striving to look or dress a certain way are a few things people do to cater to social priorities. That’s not to say that attending to social priorities is a bad thing; it’s just a reality of being a human. All of us need social connections of some kind to help us feel part of something larger than ourselves.
Internal priorities are the most important of them all, as these are the aspects of ourselves that indicate what our values are in life and the legacy we leave behind with our behaviors and actions in this world. That sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it? But we’re already doing it, subconsciously.
When we get up in the morning, our decisions are a reflection of our values.
Of course, sometimes we are giving in to the priorities that have been put in place by social convention; putting on clothes, going to work, not running into people with your car; these are the priorities that we were taught by our parents and by social expectation. We have a social contract we are upholding with many of our decisions; external priorities, especially when we really just want to sleep in.
How we conduct ourselves while we’re out in the world, how we treat people, the way we treat ourselves. These are all factors that connect with our priorities that are based out of our values.
If we chose to make a donation to the homeless shelter this week rather than buying another pair of shoes, it would be a safe bet that the priority this week is helping others.
If we decide that going out for dinner is a good plan on a Friday night instead of cooking at home, the priority at that time may be having fun, eating well and saving precious energy.
The ways we use our time and energy often reflect some aspect of our priorities, whether internally (values driven) , externally (deadline driven) or socially influenced. Sometimes our internal priorities take a back seat to external or social factors.
Even the competing forces of our own realities can throw us off the path of following our most important priorities at times. Fatigue and emotional distress are common causes of people veering away from what is most important. If someone values time with loved ones but is struggling with depression, their priorities may be hijacked.
When our priorities are hijacked by our emotions, it often feels quite terrible. It’s as if a battle is going on within and the more powerful and overwhelming emotion wins.
Ironically, part of the solution to this hijacking of priorities is to fight against the urge to give in. Often the path of least resistance feels like the best one to pursue, particularly if energy and emotions are low. Giving in to it only perpetuates the cycle and keeps us stuck. It is at those times when the priority of self-love has to rise above all of the others and push us out of our comfort zones.
How To Prioritize Your Priorities
As you examine which priorities are most important, it may be useful to sort them out into the three categories mentioned above.
Which of your priorities stem from external expectations?
If you were to rate these priorities from one to five stars (five being most important) which ones would have the most stars and why?
What priorities are socially based? Using the five star rating system, how many stars would each social priority be given and why?
What are your values-driven priorities? When listing them out, which ones are rated highest?
The top-ranking priorities in each section are the ones that influence you the most. As you make decisions about how to spend your time and energy, strive to factor in a variety of these priorities for a well-balanced life. Self care should always make the list.
If you are trying to meet everyone else’s expectations and priorities, and ignoring self care, you could get burned out pretty quickly and lapse into depression, which would likely force you to drop a number of other priorities.
You can’t bail water out of an empty barrel; make your own physical and emotional health a priority. Sometimes this may mean saying no to the demands or priorities of others, particularly if you are prone to being a people pleaser.
Saying no and setting a limit doesn’t mean you are neglecting the needs of others, it means you are prioritizing your own health and wellness, which will preserve your energy for others in the long run.