We live in a world where we want everything at once, often without putting in the work, and our initial reaction is to complain when we don’t have said thing. Interestingly, we’re often not even aware that our actions don’t align with our priorities, and this is usually due to a lack of clarity around our priorities in the first place. In order to be clear about our priorities, we need to really be honest with ourselves about the time and effort we’re willing to put in for each competing priority. Conversely, there is another end of the priorities spectrum, where we’re willing to sacrifice everything for one goal and the other areas of our lives suffer. For long-term success and happiness, I don’t believe in either approach: putting all our proverbial priority-eggs in one basket or having such scattered and unclear priorities that we don’t accomplish anything.
This topic has been swirling around my head since my Crossfit competition a few weeks ago, as I was frustrated about my performance in a particular movement (toes to bar). Upon reflection and a conversation with a friend, I realized that felt the same way about several other movements I don’t excel at. My initial reaction has been to play the victim and relish in my inability to be successful right off the bat, but when I reflected on the consistent work and effort I had put in to improve upon these skills and movements, it was dismal. This dismal effort is fine if improving upon these skills isn’t a priority for me, but then I need to accept the outcome. I can’t have it both ways.
I lived on the opposite end of the spectrum with my food and body obsession for years, as I sacrificed almost every other area of my life as a result. My priority was my appearance and my subconscious self-obsession, and this was accurately reflected when looking at the other areas of my life. I isolated myself from friends and family, I turned down parties and other social occasions in favor of my strict regimen, and I neglected my health, even when my body was showing me clear signs of desperation. My relationships, my happiness and growth as a person, my health, and my life experiences all suffered as a result of my body obsession. I’m not here to tell anyone that living their life in this way is wrong, and in some professions or in preparation for competitions these sacrifices may be necessary, but prioritizing my life in this way wasn’t right for me. And it took a long time to arrive at this conclusion.
It’s really easy to float through life without any clear picture of what is actually important to us, but this can also be very chaotic and unfulfilling, as our actions, mindset, and lives as a whole will be a reflection of this. We say we want to improve our health and lose some weight, but we actually prefer wings and beer every night in lieu of the gym and healthy meals. We say we want to be in a committed relationship, but we’re not willing to make the effort and put ourselves out there. We say we want to improve our toes to bar or double-unders (personal tidbit here), but we’re not staying after class to practice. We say we want to save money to travel, but frivolously spend our money on things we don’t need. We say we want to free ourselves of our food and body obsession, but we’re not willing to accept that our bodies may change as a result. To be clear, none of these priorities is incorrect, and they’ll ebb and flow throughout our lives, but we need to solidify what is actually important enough to act on. And then we must accept what we’re sacrificing as a result.
In order to effectively determine our priorities and how we can align our actions accordingly, I recommend the following:
1. Make a list of everything that is important to you and any related goals. Be as detailed as possible here. For example, instead of saying “relationships” or “my performance in the gym,” list the relationships that are most important to you or the specific movements/skills you want to improve.
2. Rank priorities in order of most important to least. This is your initial gut reaction of what you feel is most important, so don’t feel the need to edit right now; that will come later.
3. Detail the sacrifices required for each priority: these will evolve as you continue to invest in this action or goal, so they’re based on the information we have today. Many of the sacrifices required will only come to light once we begin acting in greater alignment with our priorities and goals, so this information is based on our current assumptions.
4. Note which priorities are conflicting (i.e. wanting to party but also wanting to lose weight and improve performance in the gym), and rank the conflicting priorities in order of importance. The results of this exercise will likely prompt you to rearrange the list you created in Step 2. Ensure the information gathered in this step is consistent with your listing in Step 2.
5. Take an inventory of where you’re currently spending your time, and list your priorities accordingly. For example, if I invest most of my free time in socializing with friends and don’t spend any time practicing a hobby I want to improve, then I will list socializing at the top of my list and my hobby at the bottom. Honesty is key here, and bullshitting ourselves won’t do us any favors.
6. Identify the gaps between what we truly want to prioritize (our list from step 2) and where we’re spending our time (step 5). Everyone, myself included, is surprised by the dissonance between our actions and priorities when we finally utilize some awareness, so you should expect there to be some misalignment. We may even find that we spend a lot of time and energy on things that aren’t on our list of priorities at all. Just consider it a starting point!
7. Develop an action plan: Oftentimes, simply bringing awareness to the lack of alignment between our actions and goals is a sufficient impetus for change, but the more detailed we can be, the better. For each priority, determine your plan of action that is tailored to you and your lifestyle. You may only have 10-15 minutes after your Crossfit or yoga class to work on skills, while someone else has a full hour. This is about finding what works best for YOU, not your friend.
8. Modify based on real-time data and feedback. Determine whether you truly want to spend your time and energy differently based on feedback from implementing your plan. This will become clearer once you start spending your time and energy on the items at the top of your list, as you may find that you don’t in fact want to sacrifice for said priority/goal. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a great thing to discover the difference between what we think we want and what we actually want.
Using myself and my priorities as an example, I told myself a few months ago that I wanted to buckle down and focus on improving my double-unders. This has been a loose goal of mine ever since joining crossfit, but it crept up on my list of priorities when I realized there was a chance I would be required to do them (or at least attempt to) during the team competition I recently completed in. I decided to spend 10 minutes before or after class working on this movement, but I wasn’t willing to spend any additional time. I became more comfortable with them as a result, but I still have a long way to go. Would I have seen greater improvement had I spent 30 minutes a day working on them? Absolutely. But I decided to accept the outcome of 10 minutes a few times per week, as other priorities like work and my relationships are more important right now. I had to adjust my expectations according to my priorities and actions, and it really made the end result quite easy to accept. Would I have liked to see this movement improve drastically? Yes. Would I have been willing to experience greater improvement at the expense of my work and relationships? No. Acting like the victim and complaining about my marginal improvements doesn’t serve me, and conversely, expecting myself to be great at everything doesn’t either. We all have to pick our choose our priority battles.
"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."
- Mahatma Gandhi
I wholeheartedly believe in these words, and if we really tune in and bring awareness to the alignment (or lack thereof) of our thoughts, words, and actions, we can identify where and when we need to adjust. Deep down, we know when one of these elements is out of alignment, but we usually resort to pushing through and succumbing to what is expected of us, the pressure of perfection, popular opinion, or the victim mentality. And that can dangerously become our normal; our baseline. But that’s a passive way of showing up in this world, and we can be much more impactful when we assume responsibility and take action. Do you need to show yourself some grace and stop expecting yourself to excel at everything? Or do you need to stop blaming the outside world for your own lack of responsibility and action? It's likely a combination of both. Regardless of the circumstance, I have found that realigning actions with priorities results in significantly less stress.
This isn’t intended to make us feel like failures, but rather it can provide a great sense of relief when we finally admit what isn’t really a priority for us. I have found that life is so much more enjoyable when my priorities, actions, and thoughts are in alignment. And we might discover that some of the things we thought we wanted to prioritize aren’t really worth the sacrifices. Everyone wants the six-pack, but are we really willing to sacrifice all the things it takes to get one? There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but it’s important to find the right answer for you.