For most of my adult life, one of the most repeated suggestions I receive when I run into a problem is that I need to do a better job prioritizing. To be honest, when people talk about priorities being “out of whack”, I’m often not even sure what they mean.
The idea is nice. It sounds simple enough. You are just focusing on the right things, right? But the fact this “problem” seems so simple yet is repeated so often suggests it is not as easy as it sounds to prioritize. What really is most important? How do I make time for those things? Although most advice you’ve gotten suggests this is straightforward and something you need to “just do”, my experience has revealed that prioritizing is harder than it seems.
Here is the biggest problem: when you are considering priorities, not everything is weighed on the same scale.
Here is what I mean, using an example from my life: let’s say I have not engaged with a task I really love doing for over a week, like working on a novel. And I have been swamped with work (which, for me, is writing blogs and devotionals and a non-fiction book). If I am feeling tired or stressed and want to evaluate my priorities, I am going to have a bend toward the thing I am doing less often. It may or may not be the actual priority, but it is much more likely to feel like a priority because of its rarity.
Is traveling or staying home a priority? It depends on which you are doing more frequently. Is time with kids a priority? Of course, but if you have been spending no time with them you’ll feel the weight of it more than if you have been spending adequate or abundant time with them recently. And that will affect the way you view your priorities.
My point is that our list of priorities is (and should be) a fluid shift, at least in some sense. Sometimes I need to prioritize rest and sometimes I need to prioritize bearing down and getting a project done. When we talk about priorities, we act as though there is a hierarchy list of things that are important to us. And why that may be true in a sense, in the context of trying to manage our time it is not always helpful to think of it that way. We have to acknowledge the different weights, the way time messes with our perspective, and the reality that everything we do is important.
Priorities and Values
Too often, we mistake the concept of priorities with the concept of values. A priority is what needs immediate attention. A value is what matters most and what motivates you most effectively. Values are transcendent but priorities are circumstantial.
What we really need is to better understand our values. We need to have the self-awareness to discover our motivations behind all we do. A lot of our stress and worry and confusion is not because we are focusing on the wrong arena of our lives, but because we are not cognoscente of how our values permeate, motivate, and inspire us.
When we understand our values, we will be better able to appreciate and communicate how what we are doing fits into the transcendent meaning of our existence. We will be able to “prioritize” tasks by understanding their importance in context.