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Starting at a young age, the concept of identifying and setting our priorities in life came into play.
Think about it.
We were always being asked to decide what we wanted most… or what we wanted more.
And every day, we made choices. Some big, some small.
The older we got, the bigger the decisions we had to make.
Like choosing between a summer job to help pay for the college we wanted to attend… or taking one last trip epic with our friends before parting ways.
Then came choosing jobs. Do we take the higher paying one that requires long hours, resulting in no social life? Or the one that pays less, but gives us more free time?
Next is deciding where to live.
Who to settle down with.
Whether or not to have children.
Where to retire.
As life happens, priorities will typically shift. So it’s best to identify the ones that make the most sense to you in the here and now.
In this article, I’m going to offer 7 actionable steps to help you identify your top priorities in life.
1. Make a List of Your Needs vs. Your Wants
Needs versus wants.
The concept is often something that we, as human beings, easily confuse.
And when you are trying to figure out the difference, you’ll find there is typically a “but” in there someplace.
We need a roof over our heads… but do we need the biggest house on the block?
We want to live a healthy lifestyle, but do we need to join the most expensive gym to reach our goals?
We want to send our kids to college, but do we need them to attend the most costly school?
Once you are able to differentiate between your needs and wants, you will start to reveal your true priorities in life.
Things like financial and job security.
A safe and happy environment for your children.
Quality time with family.
When you dig through the entanglement of one’s needs and wants, you will see what really matters and can start making a plan to get there.
2. Decide Who You are Accountable To
Who do you answer to?
Who depends on you?
As children, we answer to our parents and teachers.
Later on in life, most people find themselves having to answer to an employer at one point or another.
And then people start to depend on you.
People like your teammates and friends.
Your significant other.
It is almost impossible to establish your priorities in life without thinking about the people who will be affected by them.
For example, if financial security is of the utmost importance to you… would you be willing to sacrifice time with your children by working long hours to obtain that?
It all boils down to what you want more… and then prioritizing them in a way that you can make both possible.
Priorities are like dominos… one often sets another in motion.
If you need help figuring it all out, the video below shows a brief overview of the 4 burners theory and the five specific strategies you can use to implement this concept.
3. Create a Timeline and Determine What You Need
Compiling a timeline for your life’s goals and determining what you need to prioritize in order to reach them are next.
Many times, people will interchange the words goals and priorities.
I’ve been guilty of this myself.
You see, chasing goals is like running a race to the finish line. Goals serve as the “mile markers”, or benchmarks, on your journey to winning the race.
Conversely, priorities are the things that you need to accept or deny in order to reach that goal.
Say your goal is to retire to the Carribean at age 55.
You may set goals to get you there, such as:
Now, here’s the tricky part.
In order to meet these goals, you will likely need to rethink your priorities in life.
This means you will need to say no to certain things, and yes to others, whether you like it or not.
To reach the amount of money you need to comfortably retire, you will need to prioritize financial security and savings.
This may require that you say “yes” to working more hours or accepting that promotion you weren’t sure about… which means you’ll miss many of your kids’ soccer games.
This may mean saying “no” to expensive family vacations… which means you’ll miss that look on your child’s face the first time she meets Minnie Mouse.
It may also mean saying “no” to eating out regularly or buying your kid the hottest video game console for his birthday… which will likely result in him calling you unfair.
Choices will need to be made in the quest to reach our goals… and they will almost certainly have an affect on your priorities in life.
So if you decide that making memories with your children is more of a priority than retiring early…then your future goals will ultimately change as well.
4. Assign Categories and Sort Your Priorities Accordingly
In section I, I touched upon deciphering between our needs and wants in order to reveal that which was truly important to us.
Figuring out what it is we really need to be happy and successful in this world is at the cornerstone of establishing our priorities in life.
In order to distinguish what matters most to you, you’ll need to do some soul searching… which, believe it or not, can be rather daunting.
It may help to jot down in a journal whatever comes to your mind when you think about words like “happiness, love, success and security”.
From there, try and fit your words into categories, such as:
This is a strategy introduced in Warren Buffet’s 25-5 Rule.
The rule calls for listing what you consider to be your 25 top priorities in life… and then choosing the 5 you want to work on the most. The other 20 don’t matter.
Buffet also believed that assigning categories to your priorities will help you narrow them down… and, thus, get a better handle on the big picture.
There really is no science behind this one… as it’s more about your emotional state of mind and your subconscious telling you what really matters.
The important thing to remember is that there are no guarantees in life… but the quality of life we choose to lead is entirely in our hands.
5. Eliminate Distractions and Negativity
If you are trying to figure out your top priorities in life, you’ll need to give the process the attention that it deserves.
This means you’ll need to eliminate any distractions.
When faced with making any big decisions in life, you won’t get very far if the phone is ringing constantly or text and email alerts are going off non-stop.
You’ll have a hard time staying focused in a noisy house, where the kids are screaming and playing… or watching tv.
Your best bet is to dedicate time to the process and find yourself a quiet space, free of any distractions. Buffet’s rule suggests setting aside at least 1 hour for silent contemplation and note taking.
Similarly, it’s also a good idea to distance yourself from any negativity. This means staying away from negative people, be it in person or on social media.
Whether they intend to or not, these people will try and convince you that your priorities are askew… and that may cause you to pause on your journey.
Letting negativity in will only cloud your mind and paint a false picture of what you really think is important in life.
6. Seek Advice
When you are gauging your priorities in life, keep in mind that you are not the first person in the world to struggle with doing so.
It’s not easy… especially given they may change as time goes on and our personal and professional circumstances shift.
The things you prioritized in life when you were fresh out of college are likely different now that you’re married with a child.
And they will likely change again if you have more than one child or face hardship of any kind.
That is why it’s a good idea to seek advice from a trusted family member, friend or mentor… preferably someone who’s walked in your shoes before.
Your parents, for instance, likely have little gems of wisdom to offer… being as how they raised you and all. They also probably fostered a model for what you’d like your role as parent to look like.
There is no shame in asking for guidance, especially when you have easy access to it.
But if you don’t know anybody personally that you’d feel comfortable discussing things with, there are always motivational speakers, online classes… even text therapy to help guide you down the right path.
7. Get Organized
If you think you’ve finally established your top priorities in life… now comes the hard part.
The follow through.
It’s one thing to write down your priorities and say you’ll commit to them… it’s quite another to carve out the necessary time to make them happen.
Like we’ve said, life gets busy. And it’s easy to put things on the backburner when you are feeling pressed for time.
That is why it’s a good idea to get yourself organized… let yourself, and the people around you, know you’re serious.
You can go old-school and purchase a day planner or whiteboard.
Or you can use one of the many calendar apps to keep you accountable.
It really boils down to what works best for you.
Are you the type of person who thrives when using visual reminders that other people can see? Such as the whiteboard hanging in the kitchen, or a shared family calendar?
Or are daily alerts or reminders on your phone or tablet sufficient?
When you're trying to get yourself organized, it’s also important to make sure you’re in the right mindset.
A few minutes of meditation each morning can go a long way in keeping you on point and focused on the tasks ahead.
Believe it and you’ll achieve it!
Final Thoughts on Identifying Your Top Priorities in Life
Today, we’ve discussed 7 steps to help you identify and tackle your top priorities in life.
Priorities are those things you hold most dear… the items most worth your time and effort to achieve.
What you need to remember is that each priority has a “why” attached to it.
Why do you want to go back to college?
Why do you want to switch careers?
Why do you want to relocate?
Why do you want to change churches?
Many times, you will find that the “whys” behind our priorities in life have a lot to do with happiness… happiness for ourselves and those we love.
While true priorities should not be taken lightly, it can help to acknowledge some level of compromise.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
If financial security for your family is a top priority, but spending more time with them is another… can you truly obtain both?
The answer is “yes”.
If you compromise.
Take the job that pays the bills now… but dedicate some of your free time to starting up a side business of your own. Maybe even include your family in the planning?
The priorities you set for yourself now will help you reach your goal of eventually working for yourself and make your own hours… thus spending more time with your family.
Establishing priorities in life is a balancing act, but one that will leave you centered in the end if done correctly. And always remember to also make yourself a priority so you can give your best to whatever goals you want to achieve.
And if you need more resources to figure out your priorities in life, start by knowing your core values. Here are some articles that could help:
- 5 Reasons Why Personal Core Values are Important
- Personal Core Values List: 100 Examples of Values to Live By
- 15 Worksheets for Identifying Your Core Values
Nicole Krause has been writing both personally and professionally for over 20 years. She holds a dual B.A. in English and Film Studies. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s top publications, major news outlets, online publications, and blogs. As a happily married (and extremely busy) mother of four… her articles primarily focus on parenting, marriage, family, finance, organization, and product reviews.
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.