by Niall Doherty

Today I’m going to share the technique I use for prioritizing my life. I have been using this method for about 18 months now and it has proven to be very effective. It is not my own original method; all credit goes to Steve Pavlina, who I first heard describe it in his Truth and Awareness podcast.

Why prioritize your life?

Most people do prioritize, but they only prioritize things like their work schedule or their vacation plans. Unfortunately, very few people ever sit down and prioritize their lives. That’s a damn shame.

When you prioritize your life, you essentially ask yourself, “What’s really important to me?” In answering that question, it becomes clear where you should be devoting your time and focus.

Since I’ve started using the method described below, I feel I get much more done in less time. Of course, that’s mostly an illusion. What’s really happened is that I’ve cut out the unimportant tasks from my schedule, allowing me to devote more time to meaningful pursuits. It’s not that I’m spending way more time each week working towards my goals; It’s just that I now have a lot more clarity about what my primary goals are, and I’ve eliminated the tasks which weren’t helping me reach them.

Without prioritizing, I sincerely doubt I would have been able to finish in the top 200 of the CCC 10k race last April, build a website for my Dad’s business in less than a month or comfortably write two posts a week for this blog. Prioritizing has made all those things — and many more — possible for me.

How to set priorities

I sit down and do this exercise once every 2-4 months. The first step is to identify the different areas of your life. I’ve stuck with the twelve areas that Pavlina recommends in his podcast, but you can use more or less if you like. Here are the twelve:

  1. Work
  2. Financial
  3. Primary Intimate Relationship
  4. Home & Family
  5. Physical Health
  6. Mental
  7. Social
  8. Emotional
  9. Spiritual
  10. Character
  11. Contribution
  12. Fun & Adventure

Once you’ve identified those distinct areas of your life, you next need to go through and write a paragraph for each of them. You’re trying to answer the question, “How do I feel about this area of my life right now?” Try to be as brutally honest as you can. Spend no more than five minutes writing about each area (experiment with free writing so you don’t over-think it).

If you’re not sure what to write, here are some notes to help you:

1. Work

Write about your primary job and any side jobs you might have. Is the work fulfilling to you? Would you rather be doing different work? How do you feel about the people you work with? Does your job afford you opportunities to grow? How could your work situation be better?

2. Financial

Income, savings, investments, assets. Where do you stand with those things? Are you satisfied with your current level of income? Are you saving a significant chunk of it each week, or are you living paycheck to paycheck? Are you in debt? If so, are you working your way out of it? What about retirement? Do you have a plan for that?

3. Primary Intimate Relationship

Do you have a primary intimate relationship? If not, is that by choice? If you do have a partner, how is the relationship? Are you both getting what you want from it, or are you both just on cruise control, passing the time until something better comes along?

4. Home & Family

Write about your living conditions. This includes the physical place that you live (house, apartment, tent, whatever), and the people that you live with. Is the arrangement working for you? Does it help you achieve your goals, or is it holding you back? Would a drastic change make your life better or worse?

5. Physical Health

This includes diet, exercise, sleep, and your overall energy levels. Are you in the shape you want to be in? Do you get enough physical exercise? Do you get regular deep, restful sleep? Do you depend on things like caffeine or other drugs to function? What ailments do you have?

6. Mental

Write about your knowledge, education, talents and skills. Are you happy with the levels you’re currently at? Have you learned anything new and beneficial in the past three months, or are you stuck right where you were? What do you want to learn?

7. Social

How are your friendships? Are you happy with the people you surround yourself with? Do they help you reach your goals, or do they hold you back? What do you do for them? Have you taken advantage of any networking opportunities recently? What clubs/organizations are you a part of?

8. Emotional

How do you generally feel about your life? Are you positive and optimistic, or negative and pessimistic? Do you control your emotions or do they control you? What sets you off emotionally? How do you feel when you visualize your own funeral?

9. Spiritual

Write about your religious beliefs, philosophy of life, sense of purpose and place in the universe. How do you feel about those things? Do you believe there’s a point to you being here, doing what you do?

10. Character

Where do you stand with character traits like integrity, honesty, courage, compassion, honor, self-discipline? Which of those do you need to improve? Do you consider yourself to be a person with good morals, a person of high-character?

11. Contribution

Is the world a better place for you being here? What value are you contributing? Are you making a positive difference? Do you leave people and situations better off than you found them? Do you give as much as you receive?

12. Fun & Adventure

Are you enjoying your life, experiencing what you want to experience? Are you always playing it safe, or do you take a risk every now and then, putting yourself out there and testing the boundaries? Are you having fun as you work to accomplish your goals?

The next step, after you’ve written a paragraph for each area, is to go back through them and give each one a score out of 10. So if you’re currently about 20lbs overweight, eating a crappy diet and rarely exercising, you might give yourself 4/10 for Physical Health. Again, be brutally honest with yourself here. Don’t pretend everything is rosy and give yourself an 8 or 9 just to avoid a blow to your ego. If you really want to improve, you need to accept your current reality.

As an example, here’s what I wrote for Contribution when I did this prioritizing exercise in April of last year:

How do I feel about my contributions to the world?

My contributions leave a lot to be desired. I do the sponsor a child thing, but that’s a detached contribution. I do desire more direct involvement, but I sometimes believe I should to be smart about it, use what unique skills I have to ensure maximum impact. Just thinking about it now though, that is likely to lead to nothing but procrastination, at least for the foreseeable future. This summer I’ll commit to doing something like Habitat every three weeks. Just get out there and get my feet wet. Must schedule that soon.

Rating: 2/10.

Once you’re done writing and rating, the next step is to look back over everything. It should be obvious from your answers and your ratings what areas of your life you need to be focusing on going forward. Take the three areas you scored worst in and prioritize them. These are the three areas you will be devoting most of your time and energy to in the coming months.

Next, you need to figure out specific action steps that will help you experience what you want in those three areas. So, if your first priority is to improve your social life, you could commit to taking the following action steps:

  • Join some local meetup groups
  • Organize nights out with your friends or co-workers
  • Befriend people who are more social than you

If spiritual growth is your second priority, your action steps might be similar to these:

Take action

The last part of all this is to actually go out and do those action steps. Set yourself some deadlines to create a sense of urgency, and surround yourself with people who have similar goals and/or will cheer you on as you progress. If you need a little extra help achieving your goals, check out this post.

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