Photo by Benmar Schmidhuber on Unsplash

Don’t Assume You Know What’s Important to You

What do you value today?

I’ve always held a belief that I have a set of values. These values were probably instilled upon me by my parents, my friends, pop culture and a hundred other things over the first thirty years of my life. Originally they probably resembled something like:

  • Faith, family, health, money

If those seems out of whack with what they should be, it’s probably because I just pulled them out of my head. Faith is on there because I believe it should be. Same for the others. Over time it’s been my experience that these become muddied. I am 31 and asking what my values are, after all (better late than never). I don’t consider myself an amoral person and generally I’m pretty happy and mostly nice to people. After years of piggybacking on someone else’s priorities I lost track of where I was going.

If I’m not too unhappy, then why bother thinking about this at all? I’ve found myself with extra time to think recently (ahem, 2020). I’m always busy noticing things that I want to improve about my person, life situation or other; however, I’m seldom spending time taking steps to make those improvements. Or when I do try to make improvements I’m fussing with things that don’t address the root of my concern or with an issue that’s not really worth my time. Either way, things felt out of whack.

I’ve always had a busy mind and left with the extra time with my thoughts (which are numerous), I eventually pondered myself to the conclusion that my perception of myself as being a person of purpose and conviction became detached from my actual convictions. That is, in general I thought of myself as a person that believes generally in a list of “good” things, but when I sat down to list of what’s important to me I just found myself listing the things I’m supposed to say. (An exercise I found to be even more revelatory was to look at how I was spending my time. Looking at how I spend my time a 3rd party observer would think my top priorities were work and video games!)

Identifying what I want to value

I’m the kind of person that likes a lot of things and generally I find it easy to make decisions between good and bad options. Where I struggle (and maybe this is why my mind reached the above conclusion) is when I have so many things I like 👍, how do I differentiate the good things that are worth doing from the good things that maybe aren’t worth doing? What’s my north star of time well spent?

I decided to sit down, establish some personal priorities. I looked at what my priorities were based on how I’d been living and at what I aspired for them to be. Then I wanted to sit with those for some months and see how I felt (reserving the right to change them — because after all they are my priorities).

My rules when establishing my priorities:

  • Don’t have so many that I can’t easily recall them all
  • Make them aspirational, but not too aspirational
  • Be honest with myself
  • Be selective

What have I learned?

According to my spreadsheet, I first established my priorities on October 3, 2020. Today is December 25, 2020. I say that to represent that the list I have is fresh, but not fresh-off-the-boat, fresh-from-the-womb, hot-off-the-presses fresh. So, what difference has it made so far knowing what my priorities are? The biggest thing I can tell is that I feel more balanced today than I did two months ago. Having a handful (or two) of these one- or two-word values is a weather balloon that helps me roughly measure in any moment whether or not things are out of whack. And, I think that’s all I need. I don’t think I was a hopelessly off course before, but having a clear, explicit list of values written down gives me a clearer sense of where I’m going.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

And that makes me feel better. Another observation I’ve made is that knowing what my priorities are helps me make the hard calls when necessary. I’ve never been particularly good at making the hard calls. Historically, I try to please as many people as possible and often leave myself lacking. Sometimes if I’m feeling underbalanced in the self-care area (one of my values!) then having it explicitly listed as a value helps me justify saying no to someone to focus on my own peace of mind.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that my priorities are different than the default priorities I had subsumed from life and society.

Moving Forward

I intend to continue carrying these values forward with me into the future. I’m thinking about structuring my new year’s resolutions around them rather than arbitrarily picking resolutions based on Twitter’s suggestions or reactively establishing them (more holiday food -> more holiday weight-> resolution must be to reduce weight).

What are your personal priorities? Do you have an explicit list?

Here are my recently minted ones, for good measure (in no order) —

  • My wife & marriage (having the strongest marriage possible)
  • Family ( & the family I choose)
  • Me (ambitions, personal development, creativity, peace of mind)
  • Health
  • Career (primary, secondary, development)
  • Finances (present and future)
  • Fun (short term v long term satisfaction, connecting with people)

If you found this helpful…

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Michael

Michael

Professional project manager by day. Educated as a chemical engineer. Interested in human problems.