Several years ago, as an independent consultant, I started to notice a problematic pattern.
It seemed that when my work responsibilities were at their peak; pending deadlines, reports to write, on-site meetings to lead... competing priorities would also rear their needy voices, screaming “pay attention to me!”
Thus began my long and winding journey of discovery around priorities.
Identifying our priorities.
Once I recognized the sense of inner conflict competing priorities had on me, my first course of action was to list out all of my responsibilities. As I looked those over, I noticed three distinct categories; Work, Family and Personal.
I realized that most of my inner conflict was a result of having to choose between work and family. That I had more flexibility in my schedule to attend to family needs than my spouse also reinforced in my mind that this was the right decision.
The problem with static, hierarchical priorities.
For years afterwards, I operated according to the belief that Family was always my top priority. Work took second, because I wanted to earn an income, followed by my own individual needs.
To some of you, this might make perfect sense, and to others, it might seem totally out of whack.
It is easy to put ourselves and our own interests behind those of others, especially when we are caregivers. But as the years progressed, I began to realize that, for me, this prioritized hierarchy just wasn’t working.
I rarely got to the things that mattered the most just to me. There never seemed to be enough time, or if I did have plans to go for a walk, or spend time writing or reading a good book, something almost always got in the way. Those things, of course, were the other, higher, priorities.
More recently I’ve been thinking about how, when determining our top priorities, we often do so with the belief that:
But what if we looked at priorities differently?
How we think about priorities influences how we deal with them. If we consider our priorities as being static and hierarchical, we run the risk of frustration when priorities compete with each other.
We don’t feel right sticking to that top priority when another, seemingly important one, emerges.
What's most important right now?
This got me to consider the idea of competing priorities. If our priorities were a true hierarchy, there should be no competition between them, right?
I do believe that we can only focus on one priority at a time, but what we determine to be a priority might change based on the situation.
If I am focusing on a client proposal and my daughter asks if I can help her with her homework, under the static hierarchical approach I would say, “sure honey, I’ll be with you in just a minute.”
Whereas if I have determined that the most important thing at this time is to finish the proposal because I promised it to my client, then that is my top priority right now.
Under this scenario, I might ask my daughter to work on the homework that makes sense to her, and I’ll help her with any questions once I’ve finished my work, or, if available, I would refer her to my husband.
Now this approach might not feel right to some of you. I am not saying this is always the way it should be.
What I am suggesting is that by having a clear idea of what is most important to us right now, we can more clearly determine whether or not to allow certain disruptions to our focus.
This leads to a very important distinction that I believe is worth clarifying; the difference between a disruption and a distraction.
Distractions, disruptions and context.
By my definition, distractions are things that take our attention away from one thing in favor of another, but do not require our immediate attention. We allow distractions to steer our attention away from the task at hand.
Disruptions also interrupt our attention, but we allow them because we believe they are urgent.
I wonder, however, if some disruptions are really distractions in disguise. They seem urgent, but perhaps they aren’t as time sensitive as we initially think.
Your child misses her bus home from school. Is this a disruption? I used to think so.
However, in my our situation, there is an after-school program that our daughter can attend, thus allowing us to pick her up at a later time. There is a fee, and if it is cost prohibitive, then missing the bus would be a disruption, but if it isn’t, it falls more into the distraction category.
Yes, we’ll still have to pick her up, but we don’t have to drop everything in order to do it. We can remain focused on our current priority until we’ve reached a comfortable stopping point. But if there is no after-school program, and there is nobody else who can pick her up, then, yes, drop everything and go get her.
What if we receive a frantic call from a friend saying she needs to talk with us right away? Do we drop everything and call? Perhaps.
If something seemingly more urgent attempts to disrupt us from focusing on our most important thing, then discerning whether it is truly a disruption, or is instead a distraction, is a skill that can serve us well.
Stay tuned for the next post where you'll learn:
New to this series?
If this is the first post you’re reading in this series, How To Fully Step Into Change, I encourage you to read the others too. You can find them here, here and here.
Thanks for reading!
About the Author
Megan Rounds, Ed.D. is owner and principle perculator of perculcha, llc.
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