Protecting our Priorities
Part 1: Identifying Our “Real” Priorities
Our priorities are revealed by our actions not our words. Most Christians would tell you their top two priorities are God and then their family. The lesser priorities might differ, but if you ask a Christian what his/her priorities are, you will probably get this Sunday School answer. I would argue that more often than not, this is not an accurate view of the order of importance these things actually represent in our lives. I don’t ascribe any ill intent or deceit to anyone who falsely gives this answer. That is the answer I would give as well. The reason we do this is because we know that is the most desirable way to rank our priorities. We aspire for that to be true of our lives, or perhaps we are even convinced it already is. The truth, however, is that our real priorities are evidenced by our actions, rather than our words. Our actions, less filtered by intentions than our words, can be a useful tool for us to see into the pane of Johari’s window, often hidden from ourselves.
I once confided in my therapist that I felt like my life was running me, not the other way around. I felt like I was spending all of my time on the less important things and having no time left for what was important to me. My life felt out of balance, and I felt out of control. I expressed frustration that other people had expectations of me that I was unable to meet because they simply didn’t understand how busy I was. If they did, they wouldn’t make me feel guilty for passing on invitations or showing up late. My therapist asked me why I felt I didn’t have time to spend with my family, so I explained. I had to work from eight to five, then when I got home, I had to make dinner, then exercise, then do laundry and as many other household chores as possible before finally going to bed so I would have enough energy to do it all again the next day. She then asked me a question that would change the way I viewed priorities. “So, what you're saying is that cleaning your house, is more important than having dinner with your family?”
I was angry, “Of course not! But it has to be done! No one else is going to do it for me. I don’t enjoy going to work or exercising either, but they are necessary for being healthy or being able to pay my bills.” Then she explained what I had failed to understand. If you’re a go-getter like myself, you probably share my all or nothing mentality. There was clean and there was filthy, no in between. I had to do all the chores or there was no point in doing any of them because the house would still be dirty. It sounds ridiculous to say it our loud and even more so to write it down, but if we’re all being honest, I don’t think I’m the only one that acts this way. My standard for my home and my life (even my exercise goals to some degree) was perfection, and my top priority was meeting that standard. Of course, I never did, which was why I couldn’t allow myself to take a day off to spend with my family, or even just to rest and take care of my body. Those seemed like “extra things” if I had time left over, rather than priorities.
As with anything else, protecting your priorities requires a mentality shift. I would have told you, like any good Christian, that my priorities were God, my family, then work, extra curriculars, etc. I wasn’t lying, I really believed it. Yet, I also believed all my true priorities i.e., checking boxes and meeting a standard of perfection was a mandate being thrust on me by the universe. I didn’t believe I was choosing it, but rather that I didn’t have a choice. For me, the only choice I had was how to spend the leftover time (which was none most of the time). I think humans share this feeling in different areas of our lives. The feeling that we don’t have a choice, that we are backed into a corner. We ALWAYS have a choice. Everything we do is a choice. We don’t have to work, clean, do laundry or even bathe for that matter. No one is forcing that on us. We choose to do those things (as we should) because we believe they are good and necessary for living a healthy and full life. What if we believed the same about spending time with our families, or resting, or doing something we enjoy, or reading a book just to refill our souls? We are so depleted, and we don’t have to be, but our priorities have to be defined and protected.
If you struggle with prioritizing your time and feeling out of control, try taking these practical steps to set your priorities and bring your life back into balance:
1. Make a list. I will always suggest starting out by putting something on paper. There is room for a little bit of idealism here. Don’t get in your head. Write down what your priorities would be if you were perfect, and the world was also perfect. There is no right or wrong answer here. This is about setting your own intentions for how you spend your time, and it should be different for everyone because our life circumstances are unique as are we.
2. Keep a journal. Don’t try to change anything for a week. Instead, take a few moments at the end of each day and write a timeline of how you spent your day. Don’t get too bogged down in the details (30 seconds looking at Instagram, 5 minutes replying to an email, 2 minutes brushing your teeth). If you try that, it will not last for a week. Just make a general list of what you did.
3. Evaluate your week. How well did your week line up with your list of priorities? If you said God was your top priority but didn’t crack open your Bible, it may be time for an adjustment. Were there priorities you didn’t have time for this week?
Now take a look at the “time sucks.” Were there low priority items on your list that took up more time than they deserved this week? I bet social media didn’t even make it on to your priority list, and you probably have no idea how much time you spent looking at it. If you have an iPhone, check the screen time app. There are probably similar apps you can download for Androids. Did your social media time amount to enough time for one of your priorities that you didn’t have time for this week? If so, consider limiting it. You can enable controls on your phone to set a daily limit and notify you when you get close. This is an easy way to create awareness of just how you are using your time. Social media isn’t the only “time suck.” You can probably identify several ways you are spending time without reaping much benefit.
4. Reorder your life. Take out your planner (If you don’t have one, please get one. I have a couple friends I have been begging to get a planner for years. Please. Do. It.) and plan out next week. Plan to spend time doing things that are valuable to you and create an action plan to avoid your “time sucks.” Limit your social media with your controls on your phone and schedule in 30 minutes a day to read your Bible. Then refuse to do anything else until it’s done. Set a timer on your phone and put it across the room (on DND mode if you must) to eliminate distractions.
This is where we have to reign in our idealism. Some of our priorities just will not work in our current season of life. That doesn’t mean you throw it out. It simply means you need a longer-term plan to get there and a little grace.
Were there items on your list that were not high priority but are absolutely necessary? For me, this was work. I am not particularly passionate about my 8-5 and I feel the time I spend there is more than I would like to give it. Yet, living independently and providing for myself is a priority to me. Quitting my job (while always a choice) would disrupt more priorities than it would serve. Just because this specific job is necessary for me now, doesn’t mean it has to be necessary forever. Consider your options. What would I rather be spending that time doing? Is there a way to monetize that? Could I take a different job working less and still achieve my standard of living? Could I lower my standard of living a bit? This is the part where you have to really get into the nitty gritty of what you value, but if it leads to a more fulfilling balanced life, you will be glad you did.
The most important thing to remember is that we are always growing and changing. What your priorities are now, may not be your priorities in six months or five years. Think about what season of life you are in and what you need right now, then plan for it.