A simple exercise to help you find the important things in life

Like many people in this day and age, I struggle to prioritize. Should I improve my drawing skills, learn to dance salsa, pick up a new language or become an expert mixologist? And what about that Wikipedia article on Green tapestry — don’t I want to be a person that knows this kind of stuff? When possibilities seem endless, how does one choose where to focus their attention? This simple technique helps me plan and prioritize, and I hope you will find it useful too.

The purpose of this simple exercise is to filter out the distractions and see clearly what is important to you right now. Let’s begin!

1. Make a table with four columns and three rows.

Easy.

2. Identify three areas of your life you would like to focus on over the next 3–6 months.

Perhaps you want to concentrate on your career or studies, develop the relationship with your partner, family or friends, improve your health or explore the city you are living in. You can also choose goals to focus on, but avoid being too specific — if you want to lose weight or run a marathon, these will be better off placed under a broader category, such as health, appearance or a personal challenge. Looking at the bigger picture may help you find alternative ways to achieve your goals, although you can list specific aims under each category.

3. Add the fourth category, calling it fun, entertainment or relaxation.

There might be tasks you have to do in order to achieve your goals, but remember to leave some space for things that you simply enjoy doing. Guilt-free.

Now you have four categories — these are the columns for your table.

4. Start filling in the table with things you consider spending your time and energy on.

You may want to start by making a long-list on a separate sheet of paper. Write down every hobby you have or would like to pick up, the skills you want to develop, things that interest you, are important to you — anything that comes to mind. Here go all the physical activities you may want to do, languages to learn, topics to read about — anything you would consider consciously dedicating some time and effort to.

Hopefully, you’ve got a list of at least 12–15 things to consider (anything less than that, and you probably don’t need to do this exercise at all).

Here comes the fun part!

Now start adding the items from your list into the table under one or more categories. If an item fits under more than one category — great; extend the cell to cover two or more columns. If a task doesn’t fit under any of the categories you identified, meaning it’s not furthering any of your goals and isn’t even fun — discard it.

Wait, but why do we have three rows?

That’s right, there is one more rule to consider.

The first row is for your top goals and passions, the things you absolutely need to do or really enjoy doing. Limit these to 2–3 per category and 5–7 in total.

The second row is for things that you care about, but don’t necessarily need to focus on right now. These are most likely the very tasks you are struggling to choose between, the very reason you are doing this exercise.

The third row is for things that, let’s be honest, you don’t care about that much.

Now let’s do some maths.

  1. Discard the bottom row. This doesn’t mean you should never do any of the things that didn’t make the cut but take it easy. Go for a jog if you fancy it, but don’t follow a running routine or train for a marathon.
  2. Select three things from the second row that you want to focus your attention on over the next few months. No more. This is the hard part, so think about each item carefully. Give priority to tasks that fall into more than one category and make sure no column has more than five items between the first and the second rows.
  3. Now count your points. Give each item in the top row three points for each category that it covers. So if you love cooking, host dinner parties for friends and are training to become a chef, cooking will get three points under Career, Social and Fun categories (providing that’s the categories you chose). Items in the second row should receive two points.

If you’ve done this right, you should have 5–10 items in total and scored somewhere between 27 and 52 points.

  • If you managed to score 52 points with 5 items (based on the category limit), you found the golden recipe. These are the things that will help you further all your goals, focus on them and forget about everything else.
  • Most people will get 7–8 items and 35–44 points, which is fine. This should give you a diverse but manageable list of things to focus on in order to further your goals.
  • If you ended up with 10 items and/or less than 34 points, consider looking for things that help you further two or more goals at once. Perhaps climbing is a great way to spend an evening with your partner while getting fitter and going to the theatre is entertaining, as well as a good way to get to know the culture of the city you are living in.

Hope you found this exercise useful (and the maths wasn’t too confusing). Consider repeating it every 6–12 months, as your goals and priorities change. Happy planning!

Written by

UX designer at Make it Clear. Runner. Minimalist. Environmentalist. Rationalist.

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