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Pick Your Top 5 Priorities

This post is from a series about how we choose to spend our time in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Once you’ve identified what will bring you joy, ease, strength, and meaning in your life — or how you otherwise hope to feel— it’s time to start organizing your time accordingly.

Time management guru Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, advises his clients (high-profile business leaders) to pick their top five priorities and then spend 95 percent of their time doing only those activities, saying “no” to virtually everything else. This idea made a lasting impression on me when I first heard him talk about it because I—full-time working single mom that I was at that time—was convinced that there was no way that I could spend 95 percent of my time doing things that fell into my top priorities. I was too busy just making sure the trains ran on time!

But it turns out that now. To give you an idea of how this worked for me, here are my top five priorities this year, in order of importance.

(1) Maintain my own health and happiness. Because this is my top priority, I first schedule the things that most affect my happiness. I make time for sleep, exercise, creative work, personal growth, and my friends and family, and I say “no” to those activities—fun as they might be—that interfere with my sleep, exercise, and time with my closest friends and family. When I skip exercise or shortchange myself on sleep, I might cross more off my task list or answer more emails, but that puts my first priority—staying healthy and happy—at risk. And if I get sick or so stressed out that my energy is drained? Well, that puts my other priorities at risk, too. So I have to constantly remind myself: It takes less time to exercise in the afternoon than it does to recover from the flu, should I get run down. (This doesn’t mean that I’ll never catch another cold, but it does mean that I’m less likely to!)

(2) Nurture my family, home and closest friendships. My children and husband first, extended family next, friends and community after that. This is about raising amazing human beings who are healthy and happy, and about cultivating a deep sense that I am part of something larger than myself. In order to honor this priority, I need to schedule a fair amount of family time on my calendar. Because I actually have this scheduled, I can say “no” to other things that come up more easily. I simply say that I have a scheduling conflict.

(3) Grow my online class offerings, so that I can expand my coaching practice from coaching individuals to coaching many people at once.  Maintaining my website, newsletters, and other online offerings to support this priority requires that I spend some time on marketing, PR, and administrative work. (I don’t love the marketing and sales-y aspects of this priority, so I do try to outsource them as much as possible.)

(4) Coaching and speaking.  As cheesy as the title “life coach” sounds, I love love love being one. Call it executive coaching if we must, but this is the professional activity in my life that consistently reminds me of my social value. I love creating coaching programs, like this one, and I love coaching individuals. Every day that I coach I get feedback that I’m helping people become happier, healthier, and more productive. So I spend time nearly every weekday coaching my clients. In addition, I do a fair amount of speaking as it is another way to do my coaching work for a larger audience. This year I’ve decided to take no more than twenty speaking engagements; more than that and the travel and energy required to speak will start to smother my other priorities.

(5) Give back to our community.  I serve on the board of The Thacher School and run The Backpack Project, a little family organization we’ve started to help people who live near us that are homeless. We provide backpacks (or “Care Kits”) full of supplies to the people who are homeless living in our community.

Do you think you could spend 95% of your time on your top 5 priorities?

When I first started thinking about my top priorities, I wasn’t even coming close to spending 95 percent of my time on them. In addition to my top five priorities, I was writing Raising Happiness, and then The Sweet Spot, and I was the executive director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center! Spending 95 percent of my time on my top five priorities leaves only about five hours a week for other things—that other 5%, the things that aren’t real priorities, but often need to be done.

Something often has to give; for me, before I made nurturing myself a priority, it was my health. Like many working parents, I used to put my own well-being on the back burner, never exercising and rarely getting enough sleep. This was not an effective strategy, as I was sick all the time.

Guess what? Now I spend closer to 95 percent of my time doing something that falls into one of my top five buckets (which change every year, by the way). 5% is about 45 minutes of every waking day; that is more than enough time to get the little things done that I must. Most days, most of that 5% time is spent answering emails.

How we schedule our priorities doesn’t have to be entirely proportional. We might value family most in life but spend the biggest amount of our time on some aspect of our work. So long as we are spending enough time on each of our priorities to accomplish our goals, that amount of time is enough.

Deciding on your Top 5 priorities is going to REALLY free up some time for the things that matter most to you.

Now it’s your turn to decide on your top 5 priorities ala Peter Bregman. Use the PDF download below as a guide for picking your priorities. You could even save it and use it again next year when you pick new priorities.

 Click here to download the priorities PDF


This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!