Sometimes, everything on your to-do list feels important.
You feel like if you don’t get this task done, everything else will fall down like a cascade of dominos. Or maybe your inbox keeps popping up with new tasks that seem to demand your immediate attention.
But the things that are actually important have a greater and longer lasting impact on your life, helping you to achieve big picture goals and personal growth. And that’s what you should be prioritizing; not those things that only feel good in the moment and ultimately have little or no value.
So how do you differentiate between what is important and what feels important? It can be hard! You need to have a clear understanding of what is important to you; what are the things, actions, or experiences that will have a lasting impact and help you achieve your goals?
We want to help you figure this out so that you can better prioritize the important things first, develop good habits, and compound on those achievements and your progress each day.
Do you know what is important to you?
Before you can make educated decisions about what to prioritize and how, ask yourself:
- Do I know what is important to me?
- What are my long term goals?
- What characteristics or skills do I need or want to develop that will positively impact my life and ultimately support my goals or help me become the person I want to be?
- What things or accomplishments will I look back on 10, 20 or 30 years from now and remember?
If you don’t know what is important to you or what your long term goals are, you won’t be able to discern the difference between things that will help you and those that won’t. The picture will be fuzzy and unclear.
Action for Happiness has an activity to help you figure out what is important to you. This exercise is worth repeating over time as your life changes or when you’re faced with big life decisions. See what you come up with:
1. Using the list below, made up of 18 items that many people consider to be important in life, rank each one.
There are no ties or mergers between items, as noted by Action for Happiness! I gave it a try and included my ranking below:
- Family (1)
- Friends (4)
- Health and fitness (3)
- Income (11)
- Independence (14)
- Influence and power (17)
- Making use of talents (13)
- Personal growth (5)
- Positive impact on society (8)
- Prestige and status (18)
- Professional growth (6)
- Security (7)
- Spirituality/faith (16)
- Spouse/partner (2)
- Stimulating/rewarding work (10)
- Time for leisure and relaxation (9)
- Wealth/savings (12)
- Where you live (15)
Your top 6 are the essentials, the items that you can’t live without. The middle 6 are “nice to haves;” items that you would be willing to give up in certain situations. The bottom 6 are the “nonessentials” that you would be willing to forgo completely.
2. Now, consider how you live your life in this moment.
Redo the ranking as if you were a third person observer or hired detective who has monitored you over the last 24 hours. Compare the two lists to see whether they are consistent with each other.
If you discover inconsistencies, what changes do you need to make to have your observer list match your list from step 1? Will change(s) bring you closer or farther away from the things that are truly important to you?
The exercise forces you to prioritize and recognize discrepancies in what you think and how you act, and as I found, it is quite hard!
Your interpretation of each item might be a little different from someone else’s, or two items may be so similar to you that they are essentially the same. That’s okay. The main takeaway should be that the exercise is a guide to help you identify and prioritize essentials from nonessentials.
Your Ink+Volt Planner is also a great way to pinpoint things that are important to you; you can use it as a tool to memorialize what you discover, refer back to weekly and/or monthly, and track over time.
From the yearly themes to the monthly 30 day challenges, and the weekly goals, you can identify what is important to you and the steps you can take to achieve them. For longer term planning and thinking farther into the future, use these four worksheets as a guide.
Knowing and thinking versus feeling
Now that you know what is important to you, should you choose what you do next based solely on your feelings? Does that ultimately have a lasting impact on your life and long term goals?
When faced with a decision between working on something that is important and something that feels important, you may be more likely to choose the latter without realizing it.
What feels important is often easier, urgent, popular, or quick. Choosing what feels important tends to include those things that are brief, fleeting, and less meaningful. For example, completing urgent tasks makes you look and feel busy and important, and choosing to work on easy or quick things makes you feel like you’re getting more done.
However, if you already know what is important to you, then it is easier to stay focused and not be distracted by feelings that don’t actually get you closer to those goals.
Don’t get us wrong, sometimes you should trust your gut and instincts. However, the distinction is using or relying on your feelings on the fly to make decisions without thinking through the long term impact.
Habitually dropping everything and choosing urgent tasks will not move you closer to your long term goals and won’t have a positive impact on your life. If you know what your goals are and what is important to you, your decision making won’t be biased by fleeting feelings.
The importance of developing and encouraging good habits
We develop habits over time, and once they are formed, they generally don’t require a lot of thought or energy to carry out; habits become a part of your regular routine or a reaction to specific events. You just do it.
Your habits, especially the good ones, are important because they help you stay on track and work towards accomplishing the things that are important to you.
Let’s say health and fitness is one of your “essential 6” from the Action for Happiness exercise above. Avoiding injury is one way to stay healthy; by making a habit of stretching or using a massage tool like a foam roller after your workouts, you’re more likely to accomplish what is important to you, which will have a lasting impact on your health and fitness capabilities.
Then there are the bad habits you wish you never picked up. How can you make sure your habits are working with you towards what is important, and not against you?
Identify your habits
What habits do you notice in yourself? Are you really good at setting aside time each week to review your goals and plan your week? Do you floss every day?
Or maybe you have a habit of procrastinating on the small things and it is affecting the time you have available for your passion side project. Or you might notice that you say “um” or “ah” (filler words) more frequently than you want to.
It may take some time to identify many of your habits; it can be really hard to be self-aware, especially when it comes to habits you’ve had for years. You might not notice you do something until you’re doing it or even after. Being hyper-aware or especially mindful when you’re on this step will make it a little bit easier.
For example, professional and personal growth is important to me; a component of that is speaking clearly and communicating my ideas effectively. But I have a habit of using filler words even when I know what I’m going to say and know that I don’t need to use them. I do it anyways.
Just noticing this bad habit took time, and it will take longer to correct it. However, now that it is on my radar, it is something I can work on.
Group your habits
Do you consider each of the habits you identified as good ones you want to keep, or bad ones you want to break? In my example above, I would consider “using filler words” as a bad habit, one that I want to break in order to achieve a component of what is important to me.
Breaking bad habits and developing good ones
Breaking habits can be hard because they become so engrained. And building new ones can take time to develop. But it’s possible!
- Be conscious of what you’re doing, when and/or where you do it, as well as figuring out why or how it makes you feel. For example, I noticed in the past week that I used filler words during brief phone calls where I was placing an order and interacting with a receptionist during an appointment. I didn’t realize it until later, but it was a recent event that my memory drew on.
- Keep a log of this information for a short time, for example for one week. Having objective measures makes you more aware of triggers and how often you’re really doing something.
- Find a temporary or permanent replacement for the bad habit. Using my example, when I’m about to make a phone call, I’m going to consciously take pauses before answering a question so that I can be deliberate in every word I say; a second or two of silence is ok!
Or let’s say that independence is important to you, but you have a habit of immediately going to and relying on another person in certain situations. What is an alternative process you can establish for yourself?
Maybe instead of calling or texting that person, write a letter or type an email (that you won’t send) so you can practice working through an issue on your own, figuring out possible options, pros/cons, etc. Eventually, you won’t need to write out the problem at all, and you’ll improve your ability to independently take responsibility for issues.
So what takes priority?
When you’re faced with a decision on how to prioritize things based on what you’ve identified as important to you:
- Assess the impact of your options based on what is important to you. Will there be a positive, negative, or neutral impact?
- Decide on the best outcome based on the information you have available.
- Take action! You’ve thought through and decided to prioritize something based on what is important to you, not on an immediate feeling.
- Recognize how your habits will help you.
- Adjust when new information is available or as time goes on and you reassess what is important to you.
The compound effect: make every choice count
Things have a way of growing and compounding over time; like interest in your bank account, the ways that you invest and reinvest in yourself, your achievements, and your mistakes add up over time in powerful ways.
Your habits, behaviors, choices may seem small in the moment, but when looked at in the big picture of your life, they form a string of consistent decisions and outcomes that has a huge impact on whether you’re successful in achieving what is important to you.
Spending time on things that matter the most may not be realistic all of the time, but at least if you know what’s important to you, make decisions based on that knowledge versus feelings in the moment, and make a point to use your habits wisely, you’ll set yourself up for spending time on the most important things in your life.
We hope you’re better able to prioritize those things that will have a lasting impact in your life! It may take some time to figure out what is truly important to you, but take the time: it will be worth it.