How to Prioritize Your Time: Wisdom from the Experts

Are you frustrated by the daily treadmill of too much to do and not enough time? Are you tired of feeling like you’re failing? Are you afraid of sacrificing health or relationships on the altar of work? Are you looking for peace that you’ve made the right decisions about how to spend your time?

Fortunately for us, there are experts who have uncovered the principles to help us successfully prioritize our time. 

The first step in prioritizing your time is to prioritize your life. Then you need to make it smaller and embrace your season. Then you need to break it down smaller and identify a stretch of time. Within that stretch of time you have to name what matters. When you’ve done that, you need to actively avoid what doesn’t matter. Then, schedule your time in line with your priorities. 

If the first step, prioritize your life feels too overwhelming, skip it and go right to Embrace your Season. In that case don’t worry about priorities until you get to Name What Matters

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How to Prioritize your Life

Steven Covey outlines a plan to prioritize your life in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

He challenges readers to imagine their own funeral. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to achieve professionally by the end of your life? Which relationships are most critical? 

Then he recommends beginning with the end in mind. What would it take to have the funeral of your dreams? 

Taking the long view is the first step for writing your personal mission statement. In as few words as possible articulate what your life’s impact looks like. 

Oliver Burkman, in his book Four Thousand Weeks talks about the average life span covering around four thousand weeks. Since we most often think of our lifetimes in terms of years, it’s helpful to switch it up and consider how we spend our weeks.

You could also create a family mission statement or write one with your spouse. 

It’s not easy deciding what is most important. The long term view helps. Praying about it helps. Scheduling rest helps. Deciding as a couple helps. Taking into account the other major players in your life helps. If you have a controlling or co-dependent person in your life, it helps to have your priorities determined and stick to them. 

In parenting, sometimes it helps to get perspective about how many Saturdays our kids live at home. Eighteen years times 52 weeks means 936 Saturdays.

You can go on to the other steps, even before you have this one nailed down. It can always use some tweaking. Sometimes it needs a major overall. If you find yourself suddenly single or facing a major health crisis, you might have to scrap it all and start again. 

Embrace your Season

Life is full of seasons and you can’t have everything all at once.

This might be the season for you to focus on your career. Or you may be at home with small humans. It might be the season to care for aging parents. Maybe you are pursuing a degree and need to put other things on hold. Or you find yourself recently single and need to focus on rebuilding your support network. Maybe you are in a season of grief with no resources to invest besides survival. Or you are in a season of rapid growth when your focus is on keeping up and staying afloat. Maybe you or a loved one is in a critical health crisis. 

Every season has it’s opportunities as well as it’s limitations. 

Acknowledge and accept the present circumstances of your life. 

How do your life priorities fit into this season? How can you stay true to the most important things given your current opportunities and limitations? 

In Keller and Papasan’s book The One Thing, they give the illustration of juggling glass balls and rubber balls. When you can’t keep them all up in the air, you need to focus on the glass balls so they don’t shatter. Let the rubber balls go, you can chase them later. The glass balls might be your health or family relationships. A rubber ball might be a deadline at work, a hobby or even a group of friends that aren’t right for this season. 

Break it Down to a Smaller Stretch of Time

Kendra Adachi, author of The Lazy Genius Way, is an advocate of making it smaller. For instance, when making plans for the summer, don’t look at the whole summer, but break it down into smaller sections. From now until vacation. From the end of camp to the beginning of school. Make a plan for each section. 

This works for other seasons as well. What is my top priority between now and our move to a new house? Between now and Christmas? Between now and the project deadline? From now till graduation? From now till the baby comes? 

The circumstances of life will naturally break our lives down into sections. Each section has it’s own challenges. 

There’s often a natural priority that emerges from each section as well. Sometimes, though, we have to make a conscious decision to swim upstream. 

When we’ve identified the next natural break in our lives, we’re ready for the next step. 

Name What Matters for this Small Stretch

More wisdom from Kendra Adachi. Name what matters. This is the heart of prioritizing. When you don’t take time to think through it, everything feels important. 

The genius of this step is that you get to decide what matters to you. Your priorities don’t have to be the same as everyone else’s. 

So, there’s three steps that she advocates that I’ve found immensely helpful. 

First of all, you make a list of everything that could matter. All the possibilities. 

Next, you decide what does matter. 

Finally, you choose what matters most. 

If you’re having trouble here, go back to your mission statement, what you want to accomplish long term and be remembered for. This can help inform your decisions about what matters for this small stretch of time. 

Which brings us to the question of God’s Sovereignty. Are we the captain of our own ships? Do we set goals and establish priorities and then watch God intervene to make accomplishing those goals impossible? 

When we pray for wisdom, do we believe God has given it to us? 

And how is naming what matters different than setting goals?

Defining priorities gives us a north star to know which goals to set. 

Knowing our priorities helps us schedule the most important things. We make a plan in accordance with what matters most. We allocate our resources, including energy and money, to the things that matter most. 

That means we neglect the things that matter least. 

Actively Avoid What Doesn’t Matter

Making a conscious decision to not do something helps you be at peace when a lesser priority is avoided. 

Warren Buffet’s advice is to choose your top 5 things and actively avoid everything else. 

Saying “no” is also the critical element in Greg McKowen’s Essentialism. If you say yes to everything, you invite disaster. A scattered focus ensures that you don’t see success in any area. 

When you choose what matters most, you actively choose to ignore what matters less.

Let it go.

Schedule your Top Priorities

Protect your schedule from anything that distracts you from your focus.  

Some things on your list are time sensitive and others can happen at anytime. Are there meetings or social engagements that you can opt out of? Rid your schedule of mindless time wasters, except during the time blocks set aside for rest. 

Time management expert, Laura Vanderkam, talks about 168 hour weeks. Look at a week as a unit of time and give each hour a job to do, whether it’s exercise, sleep, rest, work or relationships.  

When you schedule your time, focus on prioritizing your energy. 

If possible, schedule your important work and difficult work when your energy is at it’s peak.

In his book, Eat that Frog! Brian Tracy recommends consciously choosing the most unpleasant and difficult tasks to do first every day. 

In Margin, Richard Swenson advises to leaving a buffer zone when planning any resource to reduce stress. Don’t over schedule your time. 

Deal with Obstacles

Interruptions, setbacks, other people’s expectations, unexpected events and unplanned challenges can easily derail us. 

Make a plan for when to flex and when to stick with the plan. When something threatens to upset the schedule, you can make your decisions based on which is the highest priority.  

Make Peace with the Chaos

In The One Thing, authors Papasan and Keller warn that when you focus on one thing, you will be surrounded by chaos brought on by what you chose to ignore. 

You need to be at peace about the priorities you’ve chosen and the rubber balls that fall as a result.

That’s it. Now you have a plan to prioritize your time. 

The heart of it is naming what matters.

When you are clear on what matters, it’s easier schedule your week to use your time efficiently and productively.  

Discouragement and overwhelm are reduced when you make the decision ahead of time what you won’t be doing. The Name What Matters sequence helps you break through analysis paralysis to move forward towards accomplishment. 

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