How to Get Your Priorities Straight When Life Is Crazy

As a busy person with a quickly-growing list of things on your plate, how can you get your priorities straight? Is that even possible?

Life’s a game of needs and wants:

  • If we want a strong relationship with our wife and kids, then we need to spend time with them.
  • If we want to avoid hospitals as much as possible until we’re in our 70s or 80s, then we need to take care of ourselves by eating right and staying active.
  • If we want our lights to stay on, then we need to work so we can pay the bills.

The problem is, those needs and wants don’t always go together. In fact, most of the time what we want is not at all what we need.

  • We may want to drive an awesome car, but we need to not have a car payment that drives us into self-imposed poverty.
  • We may want to eat a giant bacon cheeseburger with fries, but we need our heart to keep kicking in the near and distant future. 
  • You may want to follow your dreams and do what you’ve always wanted, but you still need to pay bills.

That’s called prioritization. And whether you can see it or not, your priorities directly affect your ability to love and lead your family well.

If enjoying myself and letting loose is my number one priority in any individual situation (say, at a baseball game or birthday party), eating healthy may take a back seat to hot dogs and birthday cake. The same goes for every area of your life. Every time you decide to do one thing, you’re deciding not to do another.

Deciding to do less important things during hours that should be devoted to the thing that you’ve decided is most important is the same thing as deciding that those things are no longer important.

Priorities aren’t determined by your intentions, they’re determined by your actions.

We all struggle with the same thing. When what you want and what you need aren’t in alignment, our natural tendency is to lean more towards the “want” side.

But there’s a common sense approach to prioritizing your life that from Dave Ramsey’s book EntreLeadership. This should help keep yourself in check so you’re putting the most important things first every day.

How to Set Priorities:

Make a list of things you need and want (this can be as long as it needs to be).

  • Things you and your family need get marked as an A. This includes practical needs like dinner and paid bills as well as less concrete things like spending quality time with your kids.
  • Things you and your family want get marked as a B. These are things that might be important to you but you don’t technically need them. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, it just means they’re not a need.
  • Everything else can be marked as a C. However, if these things aren’t moved to a B or A soon, they should be delegated or done away with. Sometimes we’ll find that the needs and wants of others fall on our C list, and that’s okay. Some of that can’t be avoided, and it’s good to keep them there as service to others even when we don’t need or even want to do it. But overall, Cs clutter up our lives and cause stress, so get rid of them as often as you reasonably can.

Now, go through the As and ask yourself, “What is the single most important item on this list that needs to be done today?” Put a 1 beside that (A1).

What’s the next-most-important and urgent? Make it A2, etc. all the way through the Bs and Cs.

Now reorganize your list from A1 down.

When new things come up, ask yourself if that thing is more important and urgent than A1 (or whichever item you’re doing at the time). If not, put it on your list in the most appropriate place and stay on track with your priority list.

This can seem like a very basic thing to do, but most people don’t do it. Most people have done to-do lists for household chores and work tasks, but never the priorities of their daily lives. There’s something powerful about writing everything out on paper and ranking them in order that helps you actually stick to your priorities.

Looking at your priorities in this way forces you to only focus on the things that are absolutely needed before you start losing focus and getting sidetracked. That way, at the end of the day you’re not looking back wondering where the time went (which sometimes feels like every day as a parent).

So use this method to put your “need-to’s” above “want-to’s” in their proper place, and spend your valuable time doing what truly matters.