Taking stock of what matters most can help you work peacefully and efficiently through your to-do list.
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities,” said Stephen Covey, author of the classic motivational book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
For anyone who’s ever felt dictated to by your calendar, this quote is freeing and inspiring. Its suggestion is that you get to choose your life’s priorities—and then you can plan your daily life around what you need to do to make progress in those areas.
Setting priorities in a realistic, positive way isn’t a no-brainer. But these three popular methods might just help you figure out what to focus on in both the short and long terms.
1) Prioritize Your Biggest Challenge
If you have a major challenge—personal or professional—on your mind, you are likely to be distracted from, well, everything else that’s competing for your attention. Brian Tracy popularized this idea in his 2002 book, Eat That Frog!, offering the amusing, if unpalatable, image that each of us should eat a live frog as the first activity of every day. If you did that, he argued, you’d know the hardest thing you’ll have to do that day is already accomplished, so you are free to move on to other priorities. So, making your biggest challenge your priority will reward you with more time, energy and emotional space for other tasks.
2) Give All Your Priorities Room
Another image that’s helpful in setting priorities is known as the “pickle jar” approach. Imagine a pickle jar filled with sand, which represents your myriad priorities. Then imagine you have 5-10 large rocks in your hand, which represent your more significant or long-term priorities and goals. Can you fit the rocks into the sand-filled jar? Nope. Try the exercise again, only this time, place the rocks in the jar first. Now imagine pouring the sand into the jar. Most, if not all of it will fit, finding its place among the more significant rocks. Distinguishing between your “rock” priorities and “sand” priorities will enable you to have enough space to manage all of them in an appropriate and uncrowded way.
3) Let Some Priorities Go
Returning for a moment to the sand/rocks metaphor, it's important to remember not all the sand will fit into your jar. Setting priorities in a positive way, whether you’re mapping out an hour, a day, a week or a year, means being realistic about what you will be able to accomplish. Sometimes, it takes more courage to let go of a priority, a project or a goal than it does to get one done. Being honest with yourself about what simply doesn’t fit in your jar, or isn’t set up for success in your life right now, can stoke the flames of the other priorities that you are choosing to hold onto, inviting you to be more productive, and more peaceful, as you work through your list of priorities.
How do you set positive priorities?