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Set Unambiguous and Unwavering Priorities

The complexity and “busyness” that are besieging so many of us (including me) has its root in several pervasive, but false beliefs that are hailed as principles to live by. They include:

  • You can have it all (if you work hard enough or are organized enough)
  • More is better
  • Everyone is busy. If you are not busy, you are not valued.

I hate to break it to you, but you can’t have it all. Far too often I’ve taken myself to a point of exhaustion in my feeble attempts to be the perfect employee, wife, mother, daughter, friend, volunteer and committee leader – all at the same time. I’ve taken on too many projects and assignments at work, lured by both the interesting work and the mistaken notion that I, alone, was the person best suited for the job. I’ve said yes to things that I should have said not to.

Believe me, narrowing my time, energy and effort to a few commitments is truly my challenge area. My dad said I was someone that could cram more things in one single day than anyone he knew, and he was right. What he didn’t say was that I was also a person who was frazzled, frantic at times and exhausted much of the time.

One of the gifts of a long career is a great amount of hindsight springing directly from successes and failures, mistakes and brilliant moves and reaping both the pain and pleasure of past decisions.

As someone with decades in the workplace, I’ve seen an amazing thing happen over time. As I’ve gotten better at focusing, I actually get more done. Not just more, but the most important things. Without exhaustion. With grace and ease. So that is exactly what I want for you – as you set unambiguous and unwavering focus!

This focus will provide you with clarity. It will give you direction and then momentum. And it will also give you some boundaries that will make it much easier to say yes to the things that really matter and not to all those trivial others.

Now is the time to recognize that doing a few things with focus is better than doing a lot of things half-assed.

My best guess is that very few of us really have defined our core priorities – much less commit to them. Too often we allow others to set priorities for us or we don’t set them at all. We go along. We do what is “expected.” We fail to define or hold to boundaries.

For to do so means we are committing to saying no to things, perfectly good and wonderful things, but things that just don’t align with the priorities we’ve set. Doing so means we will set boundaries and not allow certain things to bleed into the time we’ve dedicated for our priorities. That many mean we disappoint others or risk being perceived as “uncooperative.”

For a time, I belabored under the false assumption that setting clear priorities and goals would take TOO much time. In hindsight, it is really quite ironic that I didn’t have time to do this, but I had all the time in the world to exhaust myself aimlessly.

That falsehood was shattered back in 2008 when my son, Brad, gave me the gift of attending a two day “grow your business” seminar in California. This was a big stage event, with hundreds in the audience. There were great speakers and music, and lots of energy. Then there came a pause in the action. Everyone was given 14 minutes to set goals for the coming year. The lights went down. The room quieted. Soft music played.

I clearly recall my incredulity at the audacity they had to ask me to set goals for an entire year in a mere 14 minutes. But not wanting to rock the boat, I gave it a try. Those 14 minutes were super focused. The thoughts flowed onto the paper. And I wrote kick ass goals that gave clear focus to that year in only 14 minutes!

If you take only one step in this 10-step process – choose this one. And without doubt, don’t skip this step, because all the remaining steps build on focusing on your key priorities and letting go of the things that create distractions and noise from your life.

My challenge to you is to get crystal clear on your top three priorities. No matter what method you choose to get there, narrow it down to three and only three!

Challenge One: Create Your Short List of Priorities (30 minutes)

  1. Find a quiet place where you can focus without distractions. A place that inspires you is preferable, perhaps in nature, in a sunny quiet spot, at the library or art museum.
  2. Determine a time horizon you want to plan within. It might be a year, a quarter or a month.
  3. Create a first list of your priorities for this time period. Your list can include work, life, health, relationships, and spiritual priorities. Allow the list to be as long as you want for now.
  4. Review your list and group together like items – as you’ll have some overlap.
  5. Now cross off those that won’t matter in 5 years.
  6. Next eliminate your “shoulds” – those that you are doing because you think others want you to.
  7. Get your list down to three clear priorities. Write them clearly and in the positive. State what you will do and not what you won’t do.
  8. Capture your list of three and post them in places you’ll see them daily. Perhaps your planner, your screen saver or a note on your car dashboard.

Challenge Two: Declare your List of Priorities (a series of 20 minute conversations)

In this step you will share your short list with those who your priorities impact. It may be your boss, your business partners or collaborators, your family or friends.

This step serves four purposes:

  1. to ensure alignment with those who impact your ability to focus on these priorities
  2. to put a stake in the ground (which aids in accountability)
  3. to make real your intentions to focus on your most important things
  4. to set any boundaries you need to establish to execute on your priorities

If you are part of a larger organization, this is a critical step in which you align your priorities against those of your team, your department and your company. It may be that goals have been cascaded down and it is equally likely that they have not. If they have, ensure your priorities support the bigger whole. If they have not, take the initiative to have this conversation as an act of leadership.

These conversations can be as short as 20 minutes and can follow this sequence:

  • Share your top priorities and why you selected them.
  • Ask for feedback and reactions.
  • Share any boundaries you’re setting.
    • For example: I’m committing to leaving on Tuesdays at 4 pm for family time.
  • Ask any questions you have.
    • For example: What projects might I de-prioritize in order to fully focus on these priorities
  • Take this time to ask for any support you might need to execute on your priorities.
    • For example: In order for me to finish my degree, I need you to take care of the children on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

Bonus Challenge: Define Your Ikigai (55 minutes)

If you’d like a deeper dive into setting priorities with a holistic focus, consider defining your Ikigai, a Japanese construct which defines “your reason for being”. Your Ikigai is the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid to do. These intersections illuminate your mission, passion, profession and vocation.

You can learn more at

Resources I Recommend

This is my “go to” book on getting focused. I’ve read it several times, I’ve gone to see Greg speak, and I led a two-day corporate retreat based on the book (which was one of the BEST retreats I’ve ever put together and led). If you read only ONE book in our simplification challenge – read this one! Here is a simpler way to get the essence – a summary of the 10 key points and two great videos!

You can read the book or you can take the simpler action of watching Simon’s shortened and simplified Ted Talk. Getting to know your own personal WHY is a powerful step into focusing and them simplifying.

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