I have a confession to make: For years, I was untruthful.
I was untruthful to myself and to others.
When I’d say “I don’t have time for that”, I thought I was speaking the truth.
But I wasn’t.
That statement wasn’t untrue because I lacked personal commitments. I’ve always been driven, and keep my calendar full!
My real problem is that I hadn’t taken the time to consider how I spent my time, and why I spent it that way.
Your time is a precious resource. And once you’ve used it up, it’s gone.
At the end of your life, you’ll give just about anything to have a few more years of life. Which is why spending your time wisely is such an important issue.
Your Time Is Your Priorities
When I told myself and others “I don’t have time for that”, what I should have said is “I’d like to, but that isn’t a priority for me right now.”
Or, a more unfortunate response: “That is a priority for me, but I feel committed to spending my time in other ways…”
Living your best life means spending your time in a way that accurately reflects your priorities.
But far too often, time isn’t spent wisely. You begrudgingly spend it on the priorities of other people. Or on commitments you let into your life without considering their implications.
Aligning your priorities with your behavior isn’t about maximizing productivity, or any other external metric.
It’s about maximizing your personal wellbeing.
When your behavior doesn’t align with your priorities, you feel unhappy. Angry. Stressed. Unfulfilled.
When your priorities align with how you spend your time, you feel great! Joyful. Satisfied. Present.
So…why do people act inconsistently with what they value?
Why We Don’t Act With Our Priorities in Mind
There are number of culprits at play here.
Mental conditioning: You’re used to doing what you’re used to doing. Even if your habits don’t bring you joy, they’re comfortable enough for you to continue on.
e.g. Compulsively reaching for your phone and opening Instagram.
Lack of awareness: You don’t realize that you’re stuck in patterns that aren’t improving your life. Humans are great at staying reactive, and going with the flow.
e.g. Spending the last 30 minutes before sleep looking at a screen. Then, wondering why you wake up feeling tired.
Payoffs in the current state: Even when you are aware that you want to change, change means you’d lose the payoffs you’re getting in your current situation. Losses loom larger than gains.
e.g. You might say you want to get in shape. But eating well and getting active means losing the payoff of continual comfort and enjoying indulgent food.
Mismatched incentives: You think that you’re chasing after something that matters. But in reality, you’re chasing after something that matters to someone else. Usually with an associated reward of some kind.
e.g. Doing a job you don’t like but staying with it for the money. You think money is the important part. But it’s not. It never has been.
(This isn’t to say you don’t need money. The point here is that there are always other ways for you to accomplish a given goal. In this case, to make money in a way that brings you joy and fulfillment. Free educational opportunities have never been more abundant. If you want to make a change and do something new, you can.)
Politeness: You say yes to things you don’t really want to do in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
e.g. Friends invite you to an event that you don’t want to go to. But you say yes anyway.
But enough with the doom and gloom. Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this story.
Cultivating a Mindset of Abundance
Here’s an empowering fact to internalize: we’re all given the same amount of time as everyone else.
Everyone in the world has 24 hours each day to spend as they see fit.
It’s up to you to figure out what matters to you. And to spend your days doing those things.
In the big picture, we think about life in time periods. Years, decades, and relationships.
But you never actually live life on that time scale. Life happens in the moments of every day. Minute by minute.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
So take the time to align your daily behavior with your priorities. There may be some discomfort in the near term, but you’ll thank yourself down the road.
Use the 20 Minute Life Checkup to Get Your Priorities in Order
This is a simple exercise you can use to assess the alignment of your behavior and your priorities. The images below are just examples. Yours may include more data points.
You can do this exercise in a notebook or with sticky notes. Or, make it easier for yourself and download the free guide. Print them off, and you have everything ready to go.
And yes, you can do this in 20 minutes. But if it takes a few more minutes, don’t worry. It’s worth it!
1. Track How You Spend Your Time During the Week
You can do this as you go throughout the week, at the end of every day, or looking back on the week as a whole.
Write down the different ways you spend your time throughout the week. If you use a calendar, use that as a jumping-off point.
Group activities into categories for the initial assessment. But you may want to split up bigger categories into smaller parts later on.
2. Organize Your Behavior by Time-Spent
Take all of the activities, and reorder them from “Least Time Spent” to “Most Time Spent.”
In Step 1, if you keep track of what you do as-you-go, make notes of how much time you spent doing each thing. You don’t need to be super precise. But keeping track of the time helps. You may be surprised by how much/how little time you spend on certain activities.
3. Add a Secondary Axis of Priority
Map how you spend your time against how important those things are to you.
So, keeping the activities in their place on the X axis, move them up or down depending on how big of a priority they are to you.
4. Evaluate What Needs to Change
- Identify what to spend less time on (start with the bottom right quadrant)
- Identify what to spend more time on (start with the top left quadrant)
5. Make a Plan to Make Changes
This breaks down into three parts.
A) Start doing less of what isn’t a priority:
- Inquire into why you spend time on those things now. There may be something worth preserving.
- Identify what (if anything) you want to maintain. When I wrote this, I was spending more time than I wanted surfing the internet and on social media. Surfing the internet helps me read and learn. Social media helps me connect with friends. But neither are the best way to go about achieving those goals.
- Brainstorm a better way to meet those needs: Reading books is a better way to learn. And phone calls, texts, and video-chats are stronger ways to connect with friends.
- Make a “do this, not that” list with this knowledge in mind.
- WOOP it! Use the WOOP tool to shift yourself to these new habits. When you catch yourself falling into old habits, you’ll know what to do instead.
(Side-note: You can learn how to gracefully “break up” with existing commitments that no longer serve you in this article.)
B) Start doing more of What is a Priority: By spending less time on unimportant things, you create space for the important things. This area requires careful consideration. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking something is a priority.
Be honest with yourself about what matters most right now. And set time on your schedule to do those things. (Or, consider making a Daily Wins Checklist that focuses on your top priorities.)
C) Start evaluating new opportunities: When considering new ways to spend your time, ask yourself: Does this align with my priorities?
Now that you have your worksheets filled out, use them for reference! They can help you decide if taking on something new is the right move.
6. Remember that values and priorities are dynamic and unique to you
When working with matters of our priorities, it’s important to remember two things.
A) Your priorities are dynamic: This isn’t a “one and done” exercise. Priorities change over time as you enter different stages of life, and as unpredictable life events happen. Come back to your charts every 6-12 months and re-evaluate if your priorities have shifted.
B) Your priorities are unique to you: You are the only one who gets to decide what matters to you most. When you were growing up, your family had more influence over that. But that doesn’t last forever. At the end of the day, nobody can answer these questions but you.
7. Optimize your schedule (this is optional)
To my mind, in a perfect world, your activities would be charted along a curve like this.
It’s not a linear scale, because there are tiers of importance in your life.
The curve would be different for all of us. But there would be one. So even within the top-right and bottom-left quadrants, there’s room for improvement. A few “zones” become most important.
But we also don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of trying to get it perfect, focus on taking steps towards a place of alignment. “Perfect” balance is an asymptote. You can approach it, but never arrive.
Celebrate the wins you have in getting more closely aligned. But don’t beat yourself up when you fall off-track.
The Examined Life is Worth Living
Inverting Socrates’ famous quote gives us a charge to take action.
It all starts with awareness. Examine your life to understand what matters to you.
Then, act accordingly.
When you live life by your priorities, everyone will know it. You’ll be putting your most authentic self into the world, spreading enthusiasm, joy, and good energy to others. We’ll all be better for it.