How to Set Priorities in Life

Priorities are the bread and butter of progress. The more you know where to direct your energy, money, and time, the more you’ll be able to separate essential from non-essential activities. And once you work hard on the right things, you’ll advance in leaps. Here is a no-nonsense guide on how to set priorities in life.  

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Many people struggle with decisions. 

I should go to that party, but I also want to finish my exhilarating personal growth book. That coworker asks for a favor, but I want to spend my evening working on a side hustle. And I never have enough time to pursue passion projects. 

To tackle those dilemmas, you need priority-setting skills. In other words, you need techniques that will help you prioritize your life and separate yes-activities from no-activities. 

How to Set Priorities in Life - boat on lake in Folkestone at sunrise
Picture by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

A no-nonsense guide on how to set priorities in life

The following are five ways to define priorities in life. By combining these five elements, you’ll know when you should say yes, and when your answer should be a clear no. 

Start with values 

First and foremost, prioritization requires a catalog of values.

Before prioritizing your life, you need to establish a framework for those priorities. In other terms, you need a foundation before building a house. You can’t build walls (make decisions) if the groundwork (your core values) doesn’t exist. 

Let’s say that if freedom and adventure are part of your primary values. In that case, you’ll define professional priorities accordingly. You won’t take a job that provides only two weeks of holidays, and you’ll ponder entrepreneurship.

In that same vein, if your values include helping people in developing countries, you might prioritize volunteering over a drunken backpacking adventure.

Values underpin priorities. And these value-driven priorities will lay the groundwork for your everyday decisions.

Decide on a few essential, high-impact habits 

When your values are clear, it’s time to find out which habits adhere to those values. 

If one of your primary values is stability, your decisions will be in line with that ethos. You’ll prioritize a steady income over more travel experiences, for example. As such, your priorities should not jeopardize your cardinal value, stability. 

Consequently, to incorporate values into your life, you need to identify a few high-impact habits that resonate with those values. 

If you value your health, you should prioritize one or two primary activities – like going to the gym – and lower the importance of habits that don’t adhere to your health value – like partying. 

No matter your values, always ask yourself: which high-impact habits adhere to my values? 

Once found, you can define these habits as your first priorities. 

Disregard the “any-benefit” strategy

Many people set the wrong priorities because they see some kind of benefit in those priorities.

Cal Newport calls this system the “any-benefit approach.”

In this context, he writes in his 2016 book Deep Work:

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question.”

Newport uses this approach to explain people’s excessive use of social media. They spend endless hours on Facebook because the site entertains them — one benefit next to a multitude of disadvantages like the loss of time and concentration.

The same applies to priorities.

We set a particular priority because we find one advantage. That advantage conceals all the negatives, blinding us from the priority’s ramifications.

Consequently, analyze a priority in its entirety, not just from one angle.

Break big decisions into smaller chunks 

If you’re struggling to set priorities in life, stop trying to decide everything at once. In other words, break big decisions into smaller chunks. 

As an example, you might be wondering about quitting your job in a high-profile firm to join a startup. Instead of thinking about quitting outright, try getting insights into the startup by meeting the founder or visiting the company during your annual vacation. 

The idea is to slowly incorporate a potential priority into your life instead of taking an immense momentary leap.

Learn when compromises make sense 

Finally, if you want to learn how to set priorities in life, boost your compromising skills.

In the words of Lifehack’s Allison Renner,

It’s important to know when to stand your ground, but also to know which battles are worth fighting.

Consequently, when thinking about setting new priorities, ask yourself whether it should be my way or the highway or whether these new priorities aren’t a battle worth fighting.

If you’re an employee and want more responsibilities, but your boss disagrees, ask yourself if prioritizing responsibility undermines the potential damages to your boss-employee relationship. Your boss wants you to continue in your current role, and he or she might offer a favor in return.

That’s when you need to gauge the benefits of compromising in comparison to prioritizing your life to the max.

In short, there are times when compromising trumps prioritization. And in those moments, the best prioritization-setting skills include dialogue, negotiation, and concession.

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