Here’s something you don’t spend time thinking about: how to prioritize your life.
You might think you do, but your days suggest otherwise. You run around trying to complete everything on your to-do list. Your time is at the mercy of others.
So you try to catch up.
You crank up the speed and try to work as fast as you can. And as a reward for your great effort, you get more responsibilities which leaves you with even less time.
Not prioritizing what you want to do is setting yourself for failure.
But reminding yourself of everything you want to do isn’t enough. There is no structure or accountability. Soon enough, all your priorities will be crush by unimportant work.
You need to bring an important element: time.
You need to associate your priorities with a time and place. Figure out when you are going to prioritize something and schedule it.
If you don’t make the effort to schedule time for yourself, others will.
It sounds simple, and it is. But it’s also powerful. Imagine choosing exactly what you will do today? Add to that a social life, family time, creative time, and better health.
Well, that’s what happens when you learn how to prioritize your life.
As Stephen Covey writes in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”:
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
And to do that, you must learn how to schedule your priorities.
Calendar Don’t Lie
If you are a fan of 2000’s NBA, I am sure that you appreciate the Rasheed Wallace reference. If basketball is not your thing, here is a bit of background.
Rasheed was known for arguing about every foul call, every single game. Ever. As far as he’s concerned, he never committed a foul during his entire 16-year career in the NBA.
And so, whenever the referees had the audacity to call a foul on him, he protested non-stop.
His catchphrase was “Ball don’t lie!” and he would shout it every time an opponent missed a free throw.
You might be wondering: but how is this story related to prioritizing my life?
Well, there is something that does not lie about your priorities. And it is your calendar.
You already prioritize your time, whether consciously and subconsciously. If you want to know what your current priorities are, you just have to look at how you spend your time.
If you want to learn how to code, you will have to spend a few hours each week on coding projects. If you instead use your extra hours at work in pointless meetings, you are prioritizing unproductive work over learning.
Now take some time to reflect on your past week.
If you don’t like what your schedule is telling you about yourself, you need to change it. You must take a close look at your calendar and adjust who you want to be. Like the ball, the “calendar don’t lie“.
But how do you prioritize what matters?
Principles of Prioritizing
To prioritize what you really want to do in life, you need to understand two things:
- What do you want to prioritize
- How much time will you spend on each one
That’s simple, right?
To get better at prioritizing your life, you will need defined priorities and better time management.
If you don’t have defined priorities, you will waste time chasing trivial goals even if you have a lot of free time. You will find no fulfillment out of that time.
By the same token, you cannot prioritize anything if you don’t have the time to do so.
The following 4-step process will help you address both problems. The first, to help you understand what to prioritize. And the other three to increase the time you spend doing what you really want.
Step 1: Find Your Why
When it comes to prioritizing, the most important question of all is:
“Why am I doing this?”
It is easy for you to get caught up in the daily routine and to not question the habits you developed. But this question will put you in the right mindset to evaluate your life.
You must be critical about every aspect of your life. If you don’t, you will waste your time on unimportant stuff while neglecting the important.
You might be grinding at a job that is will not lead you to where you want to be. Worst yet, it does not give you any flexibility to take on your priorities.
You are in a hole where you can only escape from if you take a critical look at your schedule.
At first, this may be sobering to do. You may feel a sense of shame about where you’ve been spending your most precious hours of the day.
This is because your current priorities are not aligned with your why.
To solve this, you need to define two variables:
- Your values
- Your personal goals for the next 10 years
Now the trick for better results is to keep in mind these two variables when you schedule anything.
Use the shame you get from deviating from them as fuel to get more time to the things that matter.
But writing your why is half the battle. To ensure better results, you need to take your planning to another level.
Step 2: Plan Your Days
You probably know already what you want to prioritize. But, with all the craziness of day-to-day life, it is difficult to have time for your priorities. You try to leave some time for them, but that is not enough.
Here’s the problem:
Leave your calendar empty and you will inevitably fill your schedule with unimportant stuff. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you are free when you are not.
It is 6 p.m. and you preparing to leave work. Instants before you close your laptop, a colleague asks you for feedback on the report she is making. Since you have no other obligations on your schedule, you stay a bit longer with her.
You didn’t hit the gym a single day this week. And by staying a bit longer with her, you cannot go today either.
In other words, you are never totally “free”. You are always giving something up.
If you don’t take into account what you could be doing, you will not be able to prioritize what really matters.
To make sure you are always doing the right thing at the right time, you need to start planning your days in advance.
You should schedule everything: your work and your personal life.
This is a very easy habit to pick up that takes a total of 5 minutes per day.
By accounting for personal activities beforehand, you will be more thoughtful with the allocation of your time. You will start to plan your personal life instead of trying to fit it in around your routine.
You will soon see that you have more time for yourself than you thought.
Step 3: Master Deep Work
If you want to get more time of the day for yourself without compromising your career, you must pick up Deep Work.
Cal Newport—the author of the book on Deep Work—describes it as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
I call Deep Work the most valuable skill in the 21st century for a reason. It is the basis for outstanding professional results. It is how you will be able to unlock your full potential.
Cal is a great example of this principle at work. He is an accomplished writer, holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT and he teaches at top universities in the United States. He accomplished all this by his mid-30s while finishing his workdays at 5:30 PM, every day.
How does he do it?
He does it by mastering the skill of Deep Work and making it a habit.
For you, the introduction of Deep Work will open a lot of possibilities.
The long periods of uninterrupted focus when you perform Deep Work will allow you to produce more in less time. With more time to spare, it will be easier to prioritize what you value the most in your life.
To pick up the habit of Deep work, I recommend that you first read about the different Deep Work strategies you can choose from. There are 4 strategies to choose from according to your lifestyle. Then, implement it in your schedule consistently.
Step 4: Track Your Progress
It can be difficult to have the full picture of our priorities. It is easy to think you are doing a great job on your priorities, even when you are falling behind.
You might decide that you will spend 10 hours a week learning the guitar. But if don’t keep track of how many hours you are practicing every day, you will miss that goal rather quickly.
When you start working on a day-to-day basis, it’s very easy to fall victim to everyday work. And if you don’t know the score, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of prioritizing everything else besides your goal.
The truth is:
If you don’t know how well you’re doing against your goals, you will miss them.
So how do you know whether you are achieving your goals or not?
By keeping track of your objectives on a notebook or on a spreadsheet.
It might seem too simple, but it works. If you gain the habit of tracking how are you doing in your personal goals, you are more likely to reach them.
These goals can either be time with the family, times you went to the gym, or hours spent on your side project. No matter what they are, you will get a lot more done if you keep track of your progress.
To track how well you are doing, use your daily plans as proof of what you did during each day. Additionally, you can make a daily journal where you go in-depth on how you spent those hours.
Prioritize Your Life Now
Every minute you spend is a vote on who you want to be. If you do not spend time with your priorities, they are not your real priorities.
To make sure that you are spending your time as best as you can, start by finding your why. Take the time to understand what your goals and values are and what you will need to prioritize.
Afterward, it comes down to analyzing your current schedule and maximize the time with your priorities.
By planning your days the night before, you must think about what you put on your schedule. You will begin to find the tasks that are blocking your priorities and start to cut them out.
Once you nail the daily planning, you can introduce Deep Work to your routine to maximize your output. You will need fewer hours to produce the same, leaving you with more time to what matters.
Finally, you will need to keep track of your progress. You will “play” differently if you are always aware of the score.
And remember: the Calendar never lies.