In 2017 I was given the opportunity to form a healthier perspective on how I spend my time and what I choose to prioritize. The opportunity came in the form of cancer. It forced me to slow down, and I forced myself to figure out what needed changing. During that year I started to recognize three subtle yet very powerful influences that had been robbing me of energy and fogging up my ability to see where I really wanted to invest it.
Productivity is impossible without prioritization. The following mindsets block healthy productivity because they prevent us from consciously recognizing which priorities to advance in our lives.
Busy is better
You may have read some of the notable articles that were recently published on how being busy has become a status symbol of our times. I used to subscribe to this belief. I equated busy with productive or valued, and crammed my schedule to feel important. I compared my crammed schedule to other busy people’s crammed schedules and used that as a gauge to determine that I was on the right path, while ignoring the fact that most days I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
Just because a lot of people, especially people who are similar to us, subscribe to a certain belief, doesn’t mean that belief isn’t crazy. Trying to do too many things at once while assuming that each of those things can be done with the adequate amount of care and attention is crazy. A life threatening disease is a great excuse for letting go of all kinds of ‘need to’s’ and ‘should do’s’ that we’ve been hanging on to unnecessarily, but you don’t have to resort to something so dramatic. Let others have their neverending to-do lists while you focus on the few things that really matter to you.
You can do anything, but not everything” -Steve Allen
If you’re not sure how to tell the difference between what to do and what to ditch, try this: Think about how you feel while you’re engaging in a particular task. Does it make you feel energized? If it’s a chore that's not exactly high on your fun scale but nevertheless important, think about how you feel once you've completed it. Does it genuinely increase your sense of satisfaction? If it doesn’t make you feel either of those things, reconsider why you’re doing it.
Saying no and setting boundaries
Sometimes we have a clear understanding of who we are and where our priorities lie, but in between lies a minefield of other people’s needs and demands that prevent us from reaching them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that putting your needs over the needs of others is the best way to effectively prioritize your time. Living in harmony and cooperation with those who are near and dear to us is critical to our wellbeing, and it definitely deserves a place of honor at the top of our priority list. But there is a healthy distinction between selfish and self-determined.
If you consent to others because you’re afraid of disappointing them or being perceived as selfish, you just make it harder for people to be honest and authentic with you. Even worse, you’re not being authentic with yourself. It's a nasty cycle of keeping up pretense, and that time and energy could be better spent elsewhere. Learning to feel comfortable with saying no means you can truly enjoy the times when you say yes.
What if I fail?
This fear is elusive because we usually have to get through the first two mindsets above before we realize that this one is the linchpin at the bottom. It’s when we overload ourselves with misaligned priorities as an excuse to putting ourselves out there and risking failure. Because botching a half-assed attempt is one thing, but failing when we put in everything we’ve got is a snot-covered blow to the ego. (That metaphor doesn’t even make sense, but I’m keeping it).
The most direct path that I know to overcoming this fear is to re-examine your definition of failure. I credit Carol Dweck and her groundbreaking work on growth versus fixed mindsets in helping me appreciate that effort is so much more important than outcome. Setting priorities is a great way to achieve your goals, but our efforts say a lot more about us than whether we’ve accomplished everything we ever set out to achieve.
Do you relate to the priority traps outlined above? What are some of the traps that keep you from prioritizing your actions according to your real values?
*Hat tip to my better half, he’s a cool dude who helped show me how to drop out of the rat race by letting go of other people’s conceptions on how to spend my time ‘productively’.