Have you ever come to the end of a difficult year, and been disgusted with your life and habits? Do you find yourself spending more time on things that don’t matter than anything you really care about? Do you catch yourself bored with the present, and dreading the future?
If you’re like most people, the answer is probably yes to all the above. Life gets hard sometimes, and in all the business or emptiness, the rush or the rut, losing track of what we care about can be very, very easy.
That’s why having a system for keeping track of these things is so valuable. When life does get tough–and it does–having a firm grasp on what really matters to us, and how to prioritize those things no matter what, can help us protect whats most important.
So sit yourself down in a calm, lucid moment, and ask yourself:
What is most important?
Is it family? Religion? Your Marriage? What about that dream you’ve been pushing back, or your career? How about your health, your education, or your friends?
Make a list of everything important to you in whatever order it comes. For some, this may be a short list. For others, it could go on for pages. Any way is great, but most importantly, be honest with yourself. No one has to ever see this list but you, and it’s you alone who can discover what’s most important, and then live in a manner you can be proud of.
Next, take your list and…
Stephen Richards Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, gives a metaphor known as the Stones in a Jar:
One day, a man came to speak to a class of business students. Standing before this young group of harried overachievers, he pulled out a large, glass jar. Setting the jar on the table before him, he produced a dozen fist-sized rocks and placed them in the jar, one by one, until it was full. He asked the students, “Is the jar full?”
“Yes,” they responded.
“Really?” he replied, and took a bucket of gravel out from behind the table and poured it into the jar, giving the jar a shake so the gravel could fill the cracks.
“Is the jar full now?” he asked.
“Probably not,” they responded, smiling.
He took out a bucket of sand, and poured some into the jar.
“Is this jar full?”
He produced a pitcher of water, and filled the jar to the brim. Looking up, he said,
“The truth is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never fit them in at all.”
What are the big rocks in your life? What is the gravel? The sand? What is essential to you and what, if it came down to it, could you do without? Organize your list into categories:
- The Rocks: The five or six most important things that you can’t think of your living your life without, in order of their importance.
- The Gravel: Those things you find important, but aren’t absolutely essential.
- The Sand: Nice-to-haves, but you could go without them if it came down to a choice between them and the rocks or gravel.
This can be a difficult exercise, as it forces us to realize that we probably can’t have everything we want. Prioritizing is about trade-offs, and we may have to sacrifice some things in order to make sure that those largest stones make it in.
Now, take a good look at your list and see if there are any inconsistencies between the priorities you’ve written, and the way you’re living. If there are, apologize to yourself, apologize to others involved, and try to come up with a plan to safeguard against getting them out of order again. Which brings us to the third step,
Seek out ways to protect the people and things you value.
If realizing a dream or accomplishing a certain goal is more important to you than recreation, then guard and protect the time you spend working towards it.
If your health is important to you (and it should be!), set aside time to exercise and cook nutritious meals. Take a class on stress management. Get a running buddy.
If one of your top priorities is family, think of ways to safeguard spending time with your children when pressure from work increases. Come up with a plan to prepare and protect your family from drugs, pornography, and poor habits. Set aside certain days or times that are exclusively for family, and stick to them.
Keep your list somewhere you can see it, and don’t be afraid to reevaluate your priorities. They can change, and the daily shuffle and tyranny of the urgent, they can get lost or buried. By recognizing and prioritizing who and what is most important to you, you’ll remember their value and protect them.