How do decide what matters most, so we can make a life that matters?
What matters most?
We talk a lot on this show about making a life that matters, and about accomplishing what matters. In fact, just last week, we talked about making a life that matters as you define it and some of the things that get in the way of doing that. We talk about how intentional living is necessary in order to make a life that matters–living on purpose, choosing intentionally how we spend our time, energy, and attention. These are all important parts of what this podcast is all about.
Over the years, I've often gotten questions about how to figure out what matters most, when there are so many options and commitments available to us. The question is often asked as if the answer is “out there” somewhere, when in fact I believe the answer is within us. I thought it was worth talking about what that means and how we figure it out so we can apply it to our lives and actually create a meaningfully productive life.
Can we really rank our priorities?
Often, we want to come up with a list of what matters most that applies to life in general, with priorities or roles ranked in order of importance, that will guide all our decisions going forward. However, this is something I've always questioned. For me, it doesn't make a lot of sense.
Can we truly rank our faith, self-care, husband, children, jobs, or other important factors in our lives? The idea that we can create a list of priorities to govern our lives may not be realistic or practical. What I don't like about it is that it puts important things in competition with each other. Is our husband more important or our children? Is our job more important or is it our family? I really struggle with the idea of what it means to create a list of “priorities” and rank them in order, deciding which one is most important, which one is second, and so on.
What does it mean to put these things in order of rank? That we spend most of our time on the thing that matters most–or that we should be doing so? Self-care is important, and maintaining a strong marriage is important, but at certain stages of our life our young children require more of our time, energy, and attention. Does that mean that our kids are more important than our health or our marriage?
Work requires a certain number of hours a week, so most of us spend more time at work than with our families. Does that mean work is more important? Or if family is more important, does that mean we must adjust our time so we spend more time with them than at work? Again, for most of us, this isn't practically achievable. So is time spent the measure of what matters?
The challenge is there when the way we spend our days, time, energy, and attention doesn't match up with the rank order of our lists and we end up feeling like we've done something wrong.
Furthermore, priority is and has always been a singular word. In the article “Priority vs. Priorities”, the writer explains that the concept of having multiple priorities has only been around for the last 100 years.
For me, there are two components to figuring out what matters: the first is to find out what matters, and then to figure out what matters most. But I'm not sure that we can pick one thing that matters most overall that will always apply in the sense of governing how we use our time.
I think the concept of priority of asking what is the most important thing is useful in a very limited, specific area.
What is the priority at this moment?
In any given moment we can only do one thing. To give our best, to be our best, in any given moment, we can really only do one thing. So the question of figuring out what matters, specifically of what matters most, is really a question of how do we use our time in a moment or in a context.
If I'm sitting at my desk at work and I have multiple projects that need to be completed, what is the priority right now? What should I do first?
When we talk about figuring out what matters, we certainly can look at the big picture and think about overall values and priorities, the things that matter in our life, and figure out how to effectuate them and take action on these things in the moment.
What matters most on a day-to-day basis
On a day-to-day basis, what really matters is to do the next right thing. Sometimes the best next thing is an action or activity that serves more than one of the things that matter most to you such as an excellent meal with your family that serves both your health and your relationships.
How do you figure out what is the next best thing?
Figuring out what the next best or right thing is for my time, energy, and attention to take action on requires a few things, but most especially awareness and intentionality.
- Awareness: a conscious choice to be awake and aware of who we are, where we are, what we’re really doing, and why.
“The rush of our busy lives can quietly carve out a gulf separating our actions from our beliefs. We tend to follow the path of least resistance, even when it leads away from the things we care about.”
Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method
So many of us are in reactive mode all the time, dealing with whatever presents itself instead of being strategic and living intentionally and asking whether what we're doing in the moment is contributing to the achievement of what matters to us. In order for our actions to move us forward, we've got to be awake and conscious of what we're doing and why.
We all know this, but I'll say it again anyway. Being busy doesn’t necessarily equate to being productive, and the things that matter less can eat up all our time, leaving no time to think about, much less accomplish, what matters most to us. If we can’t do it all and be content and at peace and satisfied with our results, then we need to make choices.
So figuring out what matters is really a matter of WHY we are doing what we're doing.
Approaches to determining the priority of tasks
Below are a couple of practical suggestions on how to determine what you should be right now of all the possible things you could be doing with your time. If you have a long list of things to do, how should you determine which one to do first?
- Eisenhower Matrix: Rank tasks or commitments in four quadrants: Urgent and Important, Urgent but not important, Important but not urgent, neither urgent nor important.
- Urgent and Important: Do these tasks as soon as possible
- Important, but not urgent: Decide when you’ll do these and schedule it
- Urgent, but not important: Delegate these tasks to someone else
- Neither urgent nor important: Drop these from your schedule as soon as possible.
- The Ivy Lee Method: Limiting yourself to six tasks (or less) each day creates a constraint that forces you to prioritize properly and then stay focused by single-tasking your way through your list.
- At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the next one.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
Both methods mentioned above are explained in more detail in the article, “The ‘Everything is Important’ Paradox: 7 practical methods for how to prioritize work.”
- Do a brain dump – list everything you need to do. If you could only do ONE of those things, which one would you do. If an emergency arose and you have to leave town with time to do only one thing on the list, what will it be?
- Gary Keller’s question in The ONE Thing: “What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary.” (read “How to Prioritize Your Life with 2 Simple Questions”)
What matters most in the big picture?
How do we figure out what matters most in the big picture, what matters most in life? If I had to pick one thing to figure out what matters most in your life, I think one way to articulate it is being your authentic self: living a life consistent with your truest values.
Being yourself is probably the most important thing if you want to be the kind of person you can respect, admire, and be proud of. If you want to make the greatest contribution to the world, you have to do it from that place of authenticity, of consistency with our own values.
When I talk about being authentic, I don't think that means it's an excuse to be selfish, cruel, or unkind. I believe you can be your authentic self without crushing others around you. I say this because I've seen people say whatever is on their mind in the name of “authenticity” with no consideration for how much it hurts somebody else.
I do think it's a challenge is to figure out what that means. Who is your authentic self, and what are the truest values that can guide your choices and your actions? So much of what we do are based on beliefs that we're not even aware of, things that we've grown up believing as the truth. So it can be difficult to dig through that and even bring it up to the conscious level so we can evaluate it and think about whether the beliefs we base our choices on actually serve us anymore.
Questions to ask yourself
Figuring out what matters most to you in your life is not easy. It is a lifelong challenge and journey to figure it out, overall, at this stage of life, and in this very moment. With that in mind, try answering the following questions to ask yourself in trying to evaluate what really matters to you.
- How do you want to feel? Why?
- How do you want to be remembered by friends, family, coworkers, etc. Why?
- “What were you created for? What is your mission in life? What is your passion? You were put on this earth for a reason, and knowing that reason will help you determine your priorities.” (from “Knowing What Matters to You Instead of Living by Default”
- Who do you admire? What do you admire about them?
- If you admire your best friend, do you admire her commitment to her career? How she keeps her home? Her sense of style? How she always remembers her friends’ birthdays? Her sense of humor?
- If you admire a celebrity or author or public figure, what do you admire? Her philanthropic causes? Her talent? Her boldness?
- Why do you admire those things? How could you incorporate those things into your own life?
- Try the 5 Whys:
“If you’ve had trouble defining what really motivates you — the thing that will get you out of bed at the crack of dawn, that will sustain you through the ups and downs life throws at us all — try the 5 Whys. Start with a current situation in your life and ask yourself why, five times. You might be surprised at the final answer, or you might realize that you’ve known the answer all along and simply needed a structured way to think about it. In some cases, five times might not be enough. If you’re not satisfied with the fifth answer, keep asking.”
To get to the bedrock of your values, do this for one of your goals. We've talked in the past about knowing our WHY in order to keep going towards our goals. Below is an example from the article.
Requirements for figuring out what matters
- Silence and solitude
There is so much noise in our lives, so many people speaking into our lives, and days so full that we can’t find the time to think, to consider, to evaluate, to hear our own hearts. Every one of us, in order to live a life consistent with our values, needs to make time to think deeply about what exactly it is that we value.
- Discernment and self-awareness to understand where the ideas are coming from that we’re struggling with. Are they based on lessons we absorbed as a child about what’s true in life? We need discernment to recognize the underlying beliefs we’ve developed and to know truly whether they still serve us.
- Courage to tune out the noise, to really listen to our hearts and the voices of the people who matter most to us, and then to make the choices about what to do when based on our truest values.
We need a willingness to admit that the life we have now is the result of choices we’ve made in the past and to acknowledge when certain choices and activities and ideas and beliefs are no longer serving us. If our days are so full that there is never time to think, can we be honest about why we’ve created that life? The choice is always ours. Are we filling every moment because we truly want it that way, or are we filling our days with events and activities because we define our worth based on how much we do? Or because we’re afraid of what thoughts will come into our mind if we allow even a few minutes for silence?
When you’ve committed to these principles and identified what matters to you, of course you need to let those values guide your actions. Knowing what matters but not taking any action won't get you very far. Make a plan for when and how you’ll make changes if necessary, just one small change at a time, to make sure your life reflects what matters to you. The choice is always yours.
What do you think?
How have you identified your values and priorities? Has it been a conscious choice, or a continuous living out of what you've learned over the years? How do you figure out how to direct your life in the big picture and how to decide among competing activities or tasks on a day-to-day basis? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- “Priority vs. Priorities”
- The ‘Everything is Important’ Paradox: 7 practical methods for how to prioritize work
- “How to Prioritize Your Life with 2 Simple Questions”
- “Knowing What Matters to You Instead of Living by Default”
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