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It’s always interesting to talk to people about their New Year’s resolutions. Typically, this only happens in the first week of January. The top goals often revolve around eating healthier, exercising more, or saving more money.
What I find MUCH more interesting is talking about them in MARCH.
The answers in January and the answers in March reveal something very important about people’s values and priorities. Namely, that we often live by two sets of them.
The first set is our intended priorities. These are the ones we’d like to live by, the ones we say we’d like to live by and sometimes think we are actually living by. They are the ones that show up in our ideal world. The ones that we tweet out on January 1st. The ones our ideal self says would be best for us.
They’re also the ones we often feel guilty about not living up to a few months, weeks, or in some cases, days after we’ve stated them.
The other set of priorities are our true priorities. These are revealed not by what we SAY is important to us, but by our actions. They are shown by how we are ACTUALLY living our life. When the rubber meets the road, what do our actions show we truly value?
Shining a Light on Our True Priorities
For most people who are crazy busy and have to schedule a time to eat and use the bathroom (parents with small kids you know what I’m talking about!), you probably haven’t taken time to sit down and examine your true priorities.
But taking the time to analyze the difference between your true and intended priorities can be an enlightening exercise in clarifying the purpose of your life, your work, and yes, your money.
For example, let’s say that you state that one of your New Year’s resolutions is to pay off your debt. This would be your intended priority.
You even get really intense and sit down and come up with a plan to pay off your debt. You work out the details about how much you’ll pay off each month and determine that by the end of the year you’ll be able to have it all eliminated.
With your plan in place, you feel pretty good about yourself. In fact, in her book The Willpower Instinct, author Kelly McGonigal references research that shows just thinking about paying off your debt actually gives your brain a hit of pleasure-inducing dopamine which makes you feel REALLY good about yourself.
When it comes time to actually pay off the debt that first month, it doesn’t feel so good. This is because of something called Loss Aversion. Basically, humans don’t like losing things about twice as much as they like gains.
In other words, you’d rather avoid a loss than gain something.
Because of this, after a few months of willing yourself to pay off your debt, you succumb to the psychological urge to avoid loss and you stop paying off your debt. This then would reveal your true, or lived, priority.
Stuck In a Rut
When we live our lives with a disconnect between our desired and true priorities, we can get into a lot of trouble and struggle with a lack of fulfillment.
Because of how our brains work, we feel really good just setting goals. The actual act of thinking about reaching goals and planning for them feels AMAZING as the dopamine washes over us! Just think about the last time you planned to do something nice, kind, generous, healthy, etc. You probably felt good just having the THOUGHT.
But unless these thoughts translate into action, unless they move from desired priorities into true priorities, we end up getting stuck in a crazy cycle.
The cycle looks like this:
setting goals, feeling good about ourselves for setting them, failing to act on these goals in a sustainable fashion, feeling guilty about not acting on our desired priorities, setting new goals (or often the same goals again), feeling good about ourselves…
So we need to get clear on what our True and Desired priorities are.
Determining Your Desired Priorities
In order to determine your Desired priorities, ask yourself what, in a perfect world, you’d like various people in your life to say about you.
If you want to focus solely on your finances, imagine people were able to see a full audit of your finances. Then ask what you’d want people to say about you after they’d seen your financial situation.
Take time in a notebook to write out what you’d like each person to say.
Someone from my Family?
How about a colleague from work or a classmate at school?
Someone from my community?
It can be helpful to use third person language here to make it more real (Matt was/is…He is…)
The words that you want those around you to speak reveal your desired priorities. This is what you’d ideally like to be focused on.
Determining Your True Priorities
Next, it’s time to determine your true priorities.
If you want to know what a person truly values, look at where they spend their time, money, and mental energy.
To determine your true priorities, ask yourself these 3 very simple questions.
How do I spend/invest my free time? (we make time for what’s important to us)
How do I spend/invest my discretionary money? (we spend our money on what’s important to us)
Where does my mind tend to drift when I’m idle? Where does it naturally gravitate to?
The answers to these questions should give you a clear indication of where your True priorities lie.
True Priorities Aren’t Bad
It’s important to note that your true priorities aren’t necessarily bad. They can be great things. But perhaps they have taken a place of significance in your life that is a little out of whack.
For example, when I did this exercise one of my true priorities was this blog.
I spend A LOT of time working on it. Since I started it, much of my discretionary time goes into writing and working on a variety of aspects related to it. The blog in and of itself is not a bad thing.
But if working on the blog, thinking about the blog, and planning the blog, is putting a strain on my desired priorities of my faith, marriage, family, health or my work as an educator, then it’s a problem.
In the same way, before I started the blog, much of my discretionary time was spent watching sports on TV. Yup, a humbling yet necessary revelation if I wanted things to change.
This then was my true priority before the blog.
Now I would argue that blogging is a much better use of my time than watching sports (some may disagree!), but watching sports isn’t a bad thing. I love watching sports. But for a time in my life, it had become too high a priority.
It was stopping and thinking about where I was spending my time that showed me this.
Getting clear on the disconnect between your True and Desired priorities allows you to live your life on purpose. It prevents you from wandering aimlessly through life, or what author Michael Hyatt refers to as “Drift” in his amazing book Living Forward. Drift is the experience of living your life according to your true priorities and not your desired ones, and then waking up one morning, looking at your life and thinking, “How the heck did I get here?”.
Ranking Your Priorities
With your True and Desired priorities now clear, it’s important to rank them in order of importance.
This can be a time-consuming task and can require a lot of mental energy. But I’ve come up with a fun way to help you out.
First, list the top 16 priorities in your life.
Try to list them in order of importance, but don’t spend longer than 10 seconds thinking about the order. We’ll get to that in just a sec. Just list the things that are important to you.
For me it looks like this:
Saving for retirement
Saving for Kids’ College
Other money-related issues
Sports (in general)
That whole exercise took me about 2 minutes. You can take longer if you want, but it doesn’t need to. Note that this list can contain both desired and true priorities.
If you are doing this exercise strictly for your finances, it might look something like this (you may have a hard time getting 16. If so, list your top 8 and start in the second round with the bracket to come!):
Buy a house
Pay off debt
Save for kids’ schooling
Go on a nice vacation
Purchase a rental home
Buy a cottage
Priority March Madness
Now in the spirit of #16 on my list, Sports, let’s determine what your top priorities are by employing a March Madness style bracket.
On the bracket, fill in your priorities by placing the first one you listed in the 1 slot, the second in the 2 slot, and so on until all 16 are listed.
Then it’s a matter of head to head matchups. When two priorities go head to head, the one that moves on to the next round is the one that you value more highly.
Once you’ve crowned a champion, go back and see which of your priorities made it to your Final Four. These are the top 4 priorities that you desire to live your life by.
Moving From Desires to Reality
Having clear priorities is awesome. But a goal without a plan is just a dream. It’s important to plan for how you will realize the full potential for each of these top 4 priorities.
As with any good plan, the more specific you can be the better the chance you’ll be successful.
For each priority, come up with three concrete actions you’ll use in order to make it happen and be sure to write them down and keep them in a highly visible location, like by your bedside or on the fridge.
Use the Top Four Priorities Game Plan to help you out with this.
The final element for a successful game plan is accountability. Without someone to encourage and challenge you, and to hold you accountable, you probably won’t succeed.
This isn’t a knock against you. It’s just human nature.
Your accountability partner can be your spouse, your parents, a close friend, a colleague, or an online friend that you trust.
Once you’ve found someone to be accountable to, you’ve got to tell them what your goals and Desired priorities are and what your plan is to live them out as your True priorities.
I’ve found that until you tell someone what you’re planning to do, much of this exercise is for naught. As I said earlier, we get a rush of dopamine just planning to do good things.
Once you’ve unleashed the genie of your goals and priorities from the bottle by telling someone, everything becomes real. At that point, you’ve got someone who will hold you to what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s someone who you’ll be letting down, besides yourself, if you fail to follow through.
Bringing It All Together
With your Desired priorities now clear, a game plan designed which gives you concrete actions to make it happen, and an accountability structure in place to encourage and keep you honest, you’re set up for success.
Of course, the success or failure of this endeavor ultimately rests with you and you only. You have the opportunity to create the life you’ve always wanted or to sit back and drift towards the life you’ll end up getting if you do nothing. And that life is not nearly as awesome as the life you’ve always wanted.
As the great Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell said, “There are people who make things happen. There are people who watch things happen. And there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful, you need to be a person who makes things happen.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Are your True Priorities and your Desired priorities the same? What have you done to make sure they’re aligned. Share in the comments below or on Twitter @method_money or my Facebook page Method To Your Money. You can also find me on Pinterest. To get more great ideas on how to save money, sign up to receive my weekly emails detailing how to keep more of your hard earned cash!