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Action 30

Figure out what's important to you

We often talk about our priorities in life. But how many of us have ever stopped to really think about which things are most important to us, let alone how much time we spend on our priorities compared to less important things?

Why do it?

Take a moment and imagine that you're at the end of your life and have a chance to give your current self some advice. What would you say? Many people find themselves saying things like "spend more time on the things that really matter".

But how often do we actually stop to think about which things in our lives really matter most? And even if we are clear on our priorities, are we actually living in a way that is consistent with them right now? This action is designed to help us think this through. Also, our priorities change as we go through life so this action is worth repeating every few years. It can also be very useful if you're facing big life or career decisions.

Where to start

Below is a list of 18 items that many people consider to be important in life.

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health and fitness
  • Income
  • Independence
  • Influence and power
  • Making use of talents
  • Personal growth
  • Positive impact on society
  • Prestige and status
  • Professional growth
  • Security
  • Spirituality/faith
  • Spouse/partner
  • Stimulating/rewarding work
  • Time for leisure and relaxation
  • Wealth/savings
  • Where you live

Step 1: Your personal ranking

Find a quiet place where you can think free from distractions. Write down a ranking of the 18 items into priority order based on your priorities at this point in your life. No ties or mergers allowed!

The top 6 items are your "essentials" - the things that you consider most important and would hold on to at all costs. The middle 6 are your "nice to haves" - things that are important to you but you would be willing to let go of in certain situations. And the bottom 6 are your "non essentials" - things that you would be willing to forgo. Choosing priorities is all about making trade-offs and deciding which things we're willing to compromise on in order to make the important stuff happen.

So how did you get on? For many it's a very difficult exercise as it forces us to realise that we can't have everything at any given point in our lives - we have to make some difficult trade-offs.

Step 2: The "hired detective" ranking

The next step is to look honestly at how you're living your life at the moment and see whether this is consistent with your priority list from Step 1. Take some time to redo the ranking exercise, but this time imagine that you're a hired detective that has been monitoring your activities twenty-four hours a day for the past few months.

Now put your two lists side by side - how does the imaginary detective's ranking compare with your own priorities ranking in Step 1? Is there any inconsistency between how you would like to order your life and how you are actually living it?

If so then consider how you might make changes in your life - at home, at work and beyond - to get your hired detective ranking to better match your priorities. What changes would it take to live in a way that really put the important things first?

If you're facing a big life decision - such as a potential change in career, location or lifestyle - try to think about how the hired detective ranking would look a few months after you make that change. Will the change help you to live in a way that is closer to your real priorities or will it actually take you further away from them?

Case study

Mark's story

"I first did the priorities exercise in 2004 and found it really hard to choose between some of the items in the list. I spent a long time trying to think through what mattered most to me and I kept revising my list until I finally had something I was happy with. I decided my 'non-negotiables' were personal growth, spouse, family, positive impact on society, friends and health. I was pleased with my list.

"But then I did the hired detective ranking and had to admit that the way I was living my life was completely out of balance with my so-called priorities. At the time I was working long hours as a stressed-out consultant and the hired detective would have probably concluded my priorities were salary, influence, status and professional growth.

"Being forced to see this inconsistency so clearly really shook me up and was a big factor in deciding to make a career change and find a job that makes a positive contribution. With hindsight, doing this exercise helped me make some of the best and most important decisions I have ever made. I've also repeated the exercise every few years which has been really helpful."

References

This action is adapted from the "Near-term priorities exercise" in the book In Transition by Mary Lindley Burton and Richard A. Wedemeyer, published by Harper Collins

Resources

POSTER #6 DIRECTION

Have goals to look forward to

Direction 200

Inspiring words

Winston Churchill

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

- Winston Churchill