A Step by Step Guide to Life Prioritization

I’ve been asked a lot recently about how I manage different priorities and how I translate those priorities into day-to-day actions. It’s always a good question, but with many of us finding ourselves less distracted with travel and entertainment, the question is more relevant than ever.

Let’s go through a quick exercise to help solve this problem in real-time.

First, write down the areas of your life that demand your attention or those in which you would like to make progress. A simple version might be

1. Work
2. Fitness
3. Relationship
4. Social Life
5. Learning

You could have more or fewer categories, but those five are a decent start. Now, next to each of them write either “maintain” or “grow”. You may be tempted to write “grow” next to each of them because… who wouldn’t want to get better at everything? Remember that you have limited time, effort, and mental bandwidth, though, so think of each “grow” as diluting the others. It is generally better to make progress serially rather than in parallel as well, because your “date of earliest goal completion” will be earlier and you can start enjoying the benefits associated with it.

Here are how I would rate mine:

1. Work – growth
2. Fitness – maintain
3. Relationship – growth
4. Social life – maintain
5. Learning – growth

There’s really no right or wrong answer here, except that you should probably have a mix of both growth and maintain. If everything is growth you will burn yourself out and not execute well, but if everything is maintain you are not pushing yourself enough (or you are leaving out major life areas from the list).

I chose work as growth because I’m working on a bunch of stuff right now and I have a good environment (stuck at home) in which to make progress here. If I was on a trek across central asia or something, I would have to switch this to maintain.

Fitness is in maintain mode because I’m happy with where I am with it and am not trying to gain muscle or cut fat. My biggest priority here is to keep the gains I already have.

Relationship is growth for the same reason as work. My wife and I have more time together now than usual, so it’s a good opportunity to grow. I’d think of it more as “slow growth” than the other ones. My goal isn’t to revolutionize our relationship, it’s just to make sure that in general every month is better than the previous one.

Social life is on maintain because the same factors that make work and relationship easier make social life harder (being stuck at home). My friends are very important to me, but if I can make progress in other areas now that will free me up to focus more on social later.

Learning is really only growth for me now because I’m really into Japanese tea ceremony. I have a small Japanese tea room in my home and am stuck here (as I may have mentioned…), so I’m using that as an opportunity to 15-30x my learning speed (14 tea ceremonies per week instead of 1, plus the additional benefits of drilling individual aspects and having <24 hours of elapsed time in between ceremonies).

For each of the maintain areas, I figure out what I need to do to maintain them. Maybe counter-intuitively, I think of these as higher priority than growth areas. The reasons for that are that I have put a lot of work in to build them, so I don’t want to lose them, and because they will only take up a small defined part of my day.

For fitness I have a very strict diet (small bowl of nuts at 4pm, Chipotle at 6pm, sometimes fruit later) and I work out every other day for 30-35 minutes. I no longer increase my weights or reps.

For social life I don’t have a very fixed routine, but I chat with friends and try to initiate contact to be proactive.

Your maintenance items shouldn’t compete with your growth items. Clearly I have plenty of time to do those things in a day.

Next I think about my growth items. Specifically I think about the leverage I have and how much improvement there is to be gained. This isn’t a list of “how important are these things to me”, but rather “how aggressively should I be trying to grow in each one”.

Based on those criteria, I would order mine like this:

1. Learning
2. Work
3. Relationship

Learning is the top one because I am a beginner at tea ceremony but think I could go very far in it and have a uniquely ideal situation for improvement. I know that as soon as travel becomes normal again this will drop in priority and ability, so I want to capture the opportunity now.

Next is work for many of the same reasons as learning. I feel I have a lot more to do, and have a good opportunity to do it.

Relationship is last because we already have a great relationship and though now is a good time to work on the relationship, I think the next 12+ months may offer even better opportunities.

Now that we have good priorities, we can think about our actual days. First, we add our maintenance items. I’ve always written about how mine fit into my day above, but now is the time for you to think about what you need to do on a daily or weekly basis to make sure than you maintain those items. You can see why I say they’re more important than growth items, as we schedule the rest of our days around them.

Next we think about how to fit in our growth items. Life is complex so you can’t just allocate hours to each, but you can think about how to fit them in and that fit should reflect your priorities.

In my case, I do my tea ceremony twice per day. It doesn’t really conflict with work or relationship, so this one is easy. I do it once in the early afternoon and once in the evening. In both cases I use it as an escape from work, so it actually helps with work. No need to make things harder than they have to be.

Work and relationship, on the other hand, are somewhat in conflict. When quarantine first started I made the error of not prioritizing my relationship, and things felt off. Since then I carved out two hours every evening as a minimum spend-time-with-my-wife time, and about once a week I take off almost a whole day so that we can spend time together on the lake. We also have dinner together most nights and tea together a couple times a week or so.

The rest of time, with very few exceptions, is work. You don’t necessarily have to fill up your entire day with your priorities but I enjoy it.

You can reevaluate any time, usually every few months or if circumstances change. For example, if travel opened up and my wife and I could go on some trips together I would drop learning and possibly even work to maintain mode. If my wife went to visit family for a month I wouldn’t worry too much about pushing our relationship forward.

More than anything this exercise is useful to understand what your priorities are and in which areas you’re actually trying to grow. If you find that your day-to-day actions don’t reflect the results of this exercise, you have to really reevaluate whether you correctly identified your priorities and whether or not you are acting on them appropriately.

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