This is part 2 of the How to Do It All Series.
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I wish that there was a magical pill that I could take that would give me perfect focus, endless energy, and no side effects. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. But knowing what your priorities are, the values you are striving to embody, and the dream you are working towards… That is pretty darn close.
Last week, we discussed some reasons why we struggle to do everything we want to do. The bottom line here is that we expect too much, we don’t understand time, we think we can multi-task, and we get in our way.
One way that we get in our way is that we don’t know what we want. We struggle to separate what “I” want from what other people want for me or of me.
There is a lot of pressure to do what our family, friends, and society want from us. And there is a lot of overlap between what other people want and what I want.
There are several tools, strategies, and thought experiments that we can do to figure this out. This is important work. And it makes it much clearer what you mean when you say, “I want to do it all.”
Know your priority
What is the most important focus for you? What is the highest value you hold? What is your priority?
Knowing this will allow you to let go of the guilt. It simplifies things. Knowing what is most important to you will make every other decision easier.
But it’s not always easy to know what is the priority. Especially if you have a lot of interests or have already agreed to many different things.
And it is not easy because many things are important to you. You are not a robot or AI. You are human.
There are many strategies that you can use to identify your priorities. We are going to talk about a few today. Go through each one. Try them on for size.
Come back to them from time to time. Because your priorities, values, and dreams will shift as life changes and as you change.
- Do a values exercise
- Set a word of the year or month
- Dream big
Journaling your priorities
Journaling is a great way to reflect on what you think, feel, know, and value. It puts your thoughts onto a page where you can see what is going on inside your mind.
A great way to start journaling is to pose a question and try to answer it. Write the question at the top of a page (I usually print it so that it stands out from my regular handwriting). Then write the first thing that comes to mind. There is no censoring. Simply write whatever thoughts come to mind.
If your thoughts are racing, the act of writing it all down forces you to slow down a little. It’s one reason why I prefer writing by hand.
Writing it down (thinking on the page rather than in your head) also forces you to complete each thought. When thinking, your thoughts are incomplete, interrupted by each new thought that arises.
When this happens, write each of the thoughts down, each of the possibilities that you want to explore. If they seem to happen at the same time, make a point form list. Or if a thought occurs while you are writing about something else, you could make a quick note in the margin.
Follow each thought to the end. See where each thought leads.
If you write something that feels incomplete, or if you disagree once its down on paper write that down. “That isn’t quite right.” Or “that seems silly.” Or just, “no.” Whatever it may be, see where that thought leads.
See if you can figure out why – what’s going on.
This the the part where journaling becomes interesting. You can learn things about yourself and understand issues deeply with this kind of reflection.
Write down at the top of the page one of these prompts and see where your thoughts take you:
- What is my priority?
- What do I value?
- If I could only do one thing, what might it be?
- What do I really want?
Write all of your thoughts. There is no limit and no censorship.
I’d encourage you to do this exercise first, and then circle back and repeat it after doing the following exercises. It will help you get a baseline – where are you starting from. And it will help you summarize what you learn.
What do you value?
This is related to your priorities but it is a broader perspective. We are going to try to figure out the values that you use to make decisions.
This process is one that I have done myself and found that it helped put some things in perspective. However, there is nothing magical, or all that official about it.1 So feel free to adapt as you desire.
- a pen or marker
- 10 index cards or sticky notes
- a piece of paper or your journal
Step 1: Get a list of values
Make a list of all the values that appeal to you. There are many lists online that you can use to seed your list. I particularly like this list of core values from James Clear. But any list, even one you make up yourself, will work for our purposes.
Write down every word, every value, that strikes a chord with you. It doesn’t matter why. It could be a value that your family or culture seems to hold. Or it could be a value that opposes your family or culture, but that you find appealing. Write down any that catch your attention. Get as many as possible, but you’ll need at least 10 for this exercise.
Step 2: Pick out your top 10.
This is where you narrow it down. If there are two that are similar – such as giving and generosity – pick the one that resonates more for you. There are no right or wrong answers here. This is YOUR list. Pick whatever seems best to you.
Got your top 10? Good.
Write them each down on a separate index card or sticky note.
Step 3: Make your pyramid of values
In the end, you’ll find what your primary value is. We humans are complex, and no one value will seem complete. The other values will show you the nuance in the values you hold.
You will end up with something like this:
We’re using separate cards for each one so that you can freely rearrange them until it feels right. Take your time. And know that it could change as life changes. You are simply trying to capture what your values are today, in this season of your life.
What does it mean?
Like I said off the top of this section, this is not an official, researched system. That said, here is how I think about it.
The one at the top is your primary value. This value will be a part of every decision you make.
The two below are secondary values. They will be present in most situations and decisions.
The 3 below are tertiary values. These will be present in some situations and decisions. But there may be some situations and decisions where they are less relevant. Or you might go against them in order to meet your primary or secondary values.
The bottom row of values are ones that seem important to you. But these values can also be a distraction, if they drive too many of your decisions. If they overwhelm your primary value, you will feel unbalanced. Think of them as the spice, rather than the main ingredient.
- Make or find a list of values
- Narrow down your top ten
- Arrange them into a pyramid of your top 1, 3, 6, and 10.
These are your primary, secondary, and tertiary values, along with some values that seem important but should not be steering your decisions most of the time.
Word of the Year/Month
I first mentioned this idea in the New Year’s Resolution post. 2
I have never found New Year’s Resolutions to be very powerful for me. But this year, I decided on a word of the year. Energy.
Having a word of the year has been powerful for me. It gives focus and direction. You could also use this as a way to explore a specific value, from your pyramid of values.
A word of the month is a way to emphasize different aspects of your word for the year. It is a way to refresh your word of the year and keep it top of mind.
Together the words of the year and month provide a sense of focus and priority. It makes a little easier to know where to put your attention.
What word encompasses what you want this year to mean for you?
Where do you see yourself in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years? What feelings do you want to feel? What kind of life do you want to live? Where do you physically want to be? What kind of work or purpose will be most important to you?
These questions are ways to bring your mind out of the day-to-day busyness that we often find ourselves in. It helps you to dream big, to imagine what direction you could be working towards.
If an image, or thought, or feeling comes from those questions, what is that? Get a little dreamy if you can. And then explore the details.
If nothing comes to mind, that’s okay too. You might not be ready yet to articulate what it is you want. If you have health problems or are otherwise in the thick of life, it can be hard to see through that fog right now.
If that is the case, put away the journal. Get a mug of your favourite hot beverage, find a quiet place that you find calming or inspiring, and let your mind wander. Let yourself get bored for a few minutes. In these moments of quiet it is possible dream and imagine what could be. And if that doesn’t happen today, at least you got to savour your favourite hot beverage.
Once you have an dream in mind, ask yourself, “What are the values, priorities, or habits that a person who lives that life might have?” What might they have done to make that dream a reality?
Are there ways that you can apply those insights to your life as it is now?
Know whose opinions matter
One of my favourite quotes, frequently attributed to Dr. Seuss3:
We are all so worried about what “they” might think. Frankly, “they” are not your people. Your people are those who will be happy to support whatever decisions you come to. They support YOU. When you make a decision that you believe to be right, of course they will support it.
Knowing that your people – the people who matter – will support your decisions, doesn’t mean that you need to make decisions alone. It only makes sense if the decision will change life for them, they should have a part in that decision.
But you don’t need to include that judgmental person who is never happy with the decisions you make. You don’t need to ask people for their opinion if they have no stake in the decision. “They” don’t get a say in your life. “They” don’t matter when it comes to making decisions.
The Good Life is a compassionate life. “Those who mind” still matter as humans. They still matter in the world. And, when it is relevant, you’ll let them know what decisions you’ve made.
But they don’t matter when it comes to making the decision. And if it is not relevant, you don’t need to tell them. You don’t need to announce to Facebook that you’ve decided to write a book unless it is relevant to Facebook.
- Make a list of your people.
- Who are the people who love you unconditionally? Who are the people that you would include when making decisions that affect them?
- Make a list of those who are not your people.
- Specific people who are judgemental towards you. People who are never happy with the decisions you make.
- Groups of people who you don’t have to justify yourself to. (For example, social media.)
Before we start taking action, we need to know what it is that we want to do. I can’t do it all, if “it all” is everything everyone anywhere wants me to do. No one could.
I can do it all if “it all” means everything that I want to do. Depending on how long that list is, it may not be possible to do it all every day. But over a week, a month, a year, a life… I can. We all can.
Uncovering our priorities, our values, our big dreams, and who matters are all ways to learn what “it all” is in your life.
Stick around, because next time, we’re going to have a practical exercise to figure out if you’re trying to do too much – and how it might look to do “it all” every week.
Until next time, be good.4
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.
- I tried to figure out where this idea came from so I looked back at an old journal. But I didn’t say, which I usually do for this reason. It seemed to be some combination of asking myself “what do I value” and thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy. But I like the result, which is why I’m sharing it here.
- Hat-tip to the Being Boss podcast for introducing me to this idea
- Although it sounds like a Seuss-ism, the source is unknown. According to this article by Quote Investigator, a version of the quote first appeared in 1938. The way it was printed indicates that it was a piece of anonymous wisdom already.
- I was a teenager when I first remember my mom saying, “Be good,” when I left the house. When I left for university, and to this day, she ends most of our conversations in the same way.
Yes, she meant, ‘I love you’ and ‘stay out of trouble.’ But she also meant, ‘do what’s right.’ Follow what you know to be true for you. Learn from life and how to do things better.
Now that I’m trying to understand and evolve my philosophy of life; Now that I’m trying to help other people strive toward living the good life; I want to share that phrase, “Be good,” with you. Be good. Live the good life in whatever way you define that for yourself.