Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Everything in my life is a Priority 1, 2, 3, or 4, and I almost never do the 3s and 4s. I repeat: I almost never do the 3s and 4s. This model comes from 20 years in the software industry. In software, rigorous prioritization results in better products and happier customers. In life, it results in more peace, prosperity, and purpose. Here's how I define these priorities.
Priority 1: TRUE
Priority 1s support my true values. For me, these are my faith, my family, and my job. When I'm faced with a P1, I move other things out of the way. I protect this time ruthlessly. Examples of P1s are my daughter's tennis match, 1:1s with my direct reports, family dinners, and daily prayer. Figure out your three core values using any number of online activities, and shape your life around those. You'll know when you are doing a P1 because you'll feel a sense of peace and alignment.
Recognize the feeling: "I must do this. I am at peace when I do this. This is why I am here."
Say Yes: Figure out your values and shape your life around those. Make dramatic life changes if needed to align around your values.
Time Commitment: P1s take up about 75% of my time. They nourish and multiply me. Time flies when I'm doing them.
Priority 2: TOUGH
Priority 2s are things I need to do, but they aren't as urgent or high-impacting. They are things that I can't delegate, like exercise, learning, or maintaining my network. P2s are often tough to do, but skipping them will gum up the whole system. For example, not exercising will lower my productivity. Not networking will reduce career opportunities. Not investing in friendships will leave me lonely in the future. Figure out your P2s—things you can't and shouldn't delegate, things that are hard to do but you know are important—and build habits to ensure you do them.
Recognize the feeling: "I know I should do this even if I don't feel like it."
Say Yes: Carve out reasonable pockets of time each week to do your P2s, but don't let them overtake your P1s.
Time Commitment: P2s take up about 20% of my time. They aren't always fun, but they pay off.
Priority 3: TEMPTING
Priority 3s look like good things to do on the surface and are often quite tempting. Unlike P2s, they're usually not tough to do. The only tough thing about them is saying "no" to them. These include leading a program to make someone else happy, staying out late with friends when you know you need to be home, eating or drinking too much, or being someone you’re not to impress others. They almost always tap into one of two things: (1) our desire to please others or (2) our need to medicate ourselves. They usually sound good. But are they ours? If you find you're doing them primarily to please others, try to delegate them or just say no. If you're doing them to self-medicate, take time to diagnose and treat internal wounds that need healing. Note that such healing will likely need to become a P1 for a time.
Recognize the feeling: "I know I shouldn't do this thing even though I'm tempted to."
Say No or Delegate: If you take on a P3, forgive yourself and try again next time. The tiniest step in the right direction here is a huge win. Do whatever it takes to keep moving forward; saying No to P3s is the only way you'll be able to spend enough time on P1s and P2.
Time Commitment: P3s should take no more than 5% of your time. Soon enough, you'll be able to say No to or delegate almost all of them. For example: "Saturday is family time, so I won't be able to go to that conference, but thank you for the invite!" Or "That sounds like a fantastic program. My plate is full right now, but thank you for thinking of me!"
Priority 4: TOXIC
Priority 4s don't align with your purpose or need to be done by you. When they come to you, you'll feel a pit in your stomach. These will not only threaten your 1s and 2s, but they will infect your life and those you care about. This is the toxic acquaintance, the poorly run program, the narcissistic business or romantic partner. You'll know a 4 when you see it coming. Trust your instincts. Protect yourself, your team, and your family from 4s at all cost. You may be tempted to help P4s turn their life around. Ask yourself: Is that your true purpose in life (P1)? Likely it is not. And if not, this is not your problem to solve. Is your P4 a family member? Do your best to block the P4 qualities of them: set ground rules, stick to your word, reduce exposure to their toxicity. Be compassionate to all, but don't allow P4s to derail your life.
Recognize the feeling: "Something is wrong here. I'm sensing red flags. I think this is a P4."
Say No: How you say it is far less important than the absolute necessity of saying it. Blunder it, stumble it, whatever you need to do. Just do it.
Time Commitment: P4s should take 0% of your time. They have the potential to ruin your life. Take whatever time you need as quickly as you can to block them. Waiting will cost you inordinately later on. Is your P4 deeply implanted in your life already? It may take years to free yourself. Do whatever it takes. Extracting yourself from a P4 may need to become a P1 for a time. Once you get good at spotting P4s, ruthlessly block them.
Summary: The 5 steps of courageous prioritization
Identify your values: Complete an online assessment to identify your top three values.
Audit your life: Identify the percentage of your life you currently spend in each quadrant: TRUE to your values (P1). TOUGH but good for you (P2). TEMPTING but bad for you (P3). TOXIC (P4). A good goal is 75% P1s, 20% P2s, 5% P3s, 0% P4s. Notice where you are imbalanced.
Adjust how you spend your time: Increase time on P1s, reduce time on P2s, delegate P3s, and eliminate P4s.
Recognize your feelings: When new requests come your way, recognize the immediate feeling they generate in you. Does this request feel nourishing to your soul (P1)? Tough but probably necessary (P2)? Tempting but probably bad for you (P3)? Dread-inducing or dangerous (P4)?
Take Action: Say yes or no. You'll know which it is.
It will be hard at first, but you'll be amazed at how quickly you can reclaim control of your life. The key is knowing who you are and what your purpose is. Then you'll be able to identify whether the request is a P1, P2, P3, or P4, eliminate the P3s and P4s, and align around your P1s and P2. Author Kilroy J. Oldster sums it up nicely:
“A person who knows who they are lives a simple life by eliminating from their orbit anything that does not align with his or her overriding purpose and values.”
Don't allow the world to steal this one and only life that you've been given. Instead, honor that gift by making courageous decisions about how you spend your time. Everything depends on it.
Optional Activity: Plotting Your Priorities
List Your Priorities
Make a List of the major elements of your life: (Family, ministry, friends, etc.). What are the major buckets of things that you do in a given month?
Plot Your Priorities
In the grid below, plot the priorities you listed above according to where they are currently. Circle the items that may be in the wrong quadrant. Draw a line for where you’d like them to be in the future.
Make it so!
In the coming months, take steps to shift your priorities. You've completed the hardest step of identifying your priorities and where you'd like them to be. Take baby steps or big leaps to shift them. Celebrate any steps along the way.
About Sue Warnke
Sue is the Senior Director of Content & Communications Experience at Salesforce and the President of Faithforce San Francisco, Salesforce's interfaith Employee Resource Group. Subscribe to her blog at Leanership.org. This post is adapted from Play #6 (Prioritize Ruthlessly) in “Being a Christian in the Real World: A Playbook.” and was originally posted on LInkedIn here.