It’s a pretty regular routine in my life.
I see something I want to change in my life. I think about it. I come up with some kind of plan for that change. I become thoroughly convinced that this is the right way to go.
I start making that change in my life… and then, before long, it fails.
Sure, there are always excuses.
There was a big family reunion! It was the holidays! I just couldn’t pass up those bargains! My life is just too busy right now for this! I was so sore! I was so tired!
Do you want to know the real truth of almost every one of my failures?
I am not making this goal a priority in my life.
When I spy a big bargain on something that I vaguely want and whip out the credit card, I am not making financial independence a priority in my life. I am choosing something else to prioritize.
When I abandon an online class because I’m just too busy for it right now, I am not making self-education a priority in my life. I am choosing something else to prioritize.
When I stop going to the gym because I’m sore or I’m tired, I am not making physical fitness a priority in my life. I am choosing something else to prioritize.
When I spend a bunch of money on hobby supplies for some new hobby I’m suddenly into, I am not making financial independence a priority in my life. I am choosing something else to prioritize.
When I choose to pig out during the holidays, I am not making calorie control or weight loss a priority in my life. I am choosing something else to prioritize.
When I choose to sit around the campfire and drink several beers with extended family members at a reunion, I am also not making calorie control or weight loss a priority in my life. I am choosing something else to prioritize.
The mistake that I repeat over and over again is a mistake of prioritization. I decide to take on some big initiative in my life and I find that it’s easy when no other priorities in my life step up to the forefront, but when something else does come up, I’m suddenly distracted and I walk right away from my supposed “priority” of self-improvement.
Over and over in life, this abandonment of priorities I’ve considered in favor of an alternate priority that pops up in the moment has been the source of my failure to achieve goals. It’s created a long road of discarded goals and ambitions, leaving me in many areas with a life that I’m unhappy with.
The sad part? Most of the time, my quickly shifting priorities and abandonment of goals didn’t have to happen.
I could have enjoyed my hobbies without dumping out a bunch of money on extraneous supplies.
I could have enjoyed time around the campfire with my extended family without drinking a six pack and tossing aside all food discipline.
I could have enjoyed a holiday treat by simply being careful at other meals instead of just tossing everything in the general direction of my mouth.
Again and again, looking back, I can see a pathway through a priority conflict that allows me to stay on top of my goal. But then, again and again, I allow my priorities to get out of whack and I find myself abandoning goals because of some new perceived priority in the moment.
At this point in my life, I feel like I’m finally riding a wave of success in several areas beyond my personal finance success, which itself hasn’t been perfect (I don’t really want to get into the details quite yet, but I hope to write about some of them soon). In each case, it’s because I’ve truly committed to making some particular change into a true priority in my life.
What’s changed? Here are the strategies I’ve been using to set better priorities for myself.
I spend significant time each day reflecting on the day that’s passed and the day to come.
Journaling has always been a part of my life, but for many years it was basically just a very brief log of the top two or three events of the day.
Over the last few years, however, it’s morphed into something much more. I now use it as a time to really reflect on the previous day and the upcoming day. I try hard to look at what has gone well and what didn’t go well, and how I can have more positive results in my life.
I carry this thinking to the downtimes throughout my day, like when I’m going on a walk or when I’m driving home from dropping a child off at a practice or when I’m waiting at a doctor’s office.
One thing that I really focus on during these reflections is making sure that the things I’m doing are in line with the big things I want out of life. I want to be financially independent. I want to be mentally and physically healthy. I want to have strong family relationships and many good friendships. I want to have a strong understanding of the world. I want to be a positive influence on my community. Those are my priorities, so I try to filter my recent choices and actions through those priorities.
When I ate lunch, did I choose things that encourage physical health? Did I take some time today to improve my fitness? When I went to the store, were my choices in line with seeking financial independence? Did I make any bad choices when I visited Amazon and bought a couple of items? Did I really do anything to improve my social relationships or the health of my community when I was at that meeting last night?
I try to think about those kinds of things. If I didn’t succeed, I try to dig into why I failed and what I could do better; similarly, if I did really well, I try to glean lessons there, too.
Applying reflection time to personal finance priorities Get into a habit of reflecting on your recent choices through the lens of working towards your money goals. Do it when you’re driving to work or driving home or waiting on something. Just consider some recent decisions you made, whether they really made any sense, and whether you could have made better choices.
For example, when you’re driving home from the grocery store, go over some of the things you bought in your head. Was that a good choice? If your gut is saying no, dig into that a little bit. Why was that not a good choice? What should you have done instead?
Remember, this isn’t supposed to be negative. You shouldn’t beat yourself up with such thoughts. You’re human and your decisions are going to be imperfect. The goal is to be slightly better next time so that gradually you move onto a better trajectory.
I personally find that spending some time journaling each day – reflecting on your day and asking these kinds of questions while actually writing down your thoughts – is really useful. It forces you to think slowly and really reflect on things and translate them into the organized thought of the written word.
I remind myself of the key priorities I’m focusing on several times a day.
Another powerful way to keep your priorities front and center is to regularly remind yourself of the things you’re working on in your life that you want to prioritize.
What I like to do is run through something of a list of my priorities first thing in the morning. I’ll think about my financial progress and what I’m aiming for. I’ll think about my health and what I’m trying to do with that and how it’s a priority for me. I’ll reflect in that way about many different avenues of my life.
I find this to be a very positive and uplifting thing and it leaves me feeling good, because I always include a thought related to the progress I’ve made. I think about my negative net worth several years ago and where I’m at now. I think about my weight and health in the past and where I’m at now. I think about my relationships similarly. I cap that off with a recognition that these things are good – and they feel good – because I have made them a priority in my life and I want to keep it that way.
I try to do this at least a time or two during the day – again, I try to utilize mental downtime for this kind of reflection. I’ll do it when I’m using the bathroom or when I’m loading the washing machine or when I’m stretching. I’ll just think about my priorities, the success I’ve found because I’ve made those things priorities, and then quickly think about how my commitment has made all of those good things possible.
Applying mental reminders to personal finance priorities Consider your lowest personal finance point and how you’ve improved since then. Maybe you were in debt up to your eyeballs and scared to pay the bills. Maybe your net worth was in the negative six figures. Maybe you didn’t have a job and feel hopeless.
Consider, though, that things have notably improved since then, and a lot of that improvement has come from setting better priorities. Think of how much better your current situation is than where you started. This is powerful even if it’s just been a short time, because you can easily multiply those positive effects.
Feel good about that success, because you should feel good about that success. Then, recognize that it comes from making good financial choices a real priority in your life and commit to keeping it up.
Making that thought process into a regular chain really embeds it into your thinking and you begin to naturally prioritize such things.
I do my best to look ahead for possible conflicts of priorities and think them through before they happen.
Sometimes, it’s quite possible to be aware of situations that might really challenge your priorities, and when you can see them coming, it’s worth your effort to consider them in advance.
Let’s say, for example, that I know we’re going to a place tomorrow where I’m going to be tempted to spend more money than I should – maybe a bookstore or a home brewing store, whatever. I’m aware that when I’m in there, I’m going to have a conflict of priorities. My priority of financial independence is going to come into conflict with my priority of enjoying a particular hobby and having higher quality leisure time. In that environment, the leisure priority is going to be surging and I know this right now.
So, what I’ll do right now about it is that I’ll think through that shopping trip and I’ll visualize myself choosing my financial independence priority. I might have budgeted for that stop, so I’ll just visualize myself staying within my budget – $20 or whatever – or I’ll visualize myself spending nothing at all. Maybe I’ll see a great book! What do I do? I just picture myself writing down that book’s title and getting it at the library. What if I see a sale on homebrewing supplies? I think about the fact that I already have plenty and I visualize myself simply skipping over that sale.
Another example: let’s say I’m about to go to my in-laws for the holidays and my mother-in-law always makes a small mountain of tasty treats and a bunch of delicious meals. Not only are they tasty, I want to be polite and try some of them, too. But they’re calorie bombs and I’m trying to watch my caloric intake. In that environment, my priorities of watching my calorie intake are going to be in conflict with my priority of enjoying the pleasure of good food and my priority of establishing good relations with my in-laws. I know this conflict will happen, so what do I do?
I simply think of a plan where I can balance these priorities and not violate my health priority and then visualize myself doing it. So, maybe I’ll eat a few treats and eat a hearty meal when the whole family is gathered, but then eat small meals when the meals are simple and unimportant.
Applying conflict prediction to personal finance priorities You can use this technique any time you see a potential spending temptation in your future. Simply think about it now and visualize yourself making the choice that’s really in line with your top priorities. Figure out what you’re going to do in that situation, then picture yourself going to that store or on that trip, but you’re enjoying the experience and simply keeping your wallet in your pocket or purse.
This can be folded into a daily journaling or reflection practice. Simply look at the day ahead of you and see if you’re going to be in situations where your priorities might come into conflict or your key priorities might be challenged, then think about those situations with an open mind.
I’ve intentionally considered some of my secondary priorities and realized that they are, in fact, secondary ones.
Another element to consider in all of this is that we often don’t have our priorities organized in any real way. Sure, we might understand that a very minor priority, like watching Monday night wrestling live every week, is overshadowed by a major priority, like being involved with our children’s lives and attending their piano recitals, but when it comes down to other conflicts, the relative importance of different priorities in our life isn’t always clear.
Spending some time thinking about those kinds of issues, then, is actually quite useful in terms of making sure that your top life priorities stay on top.
Let me give you a clear example of this. For me, it’s a priority to spend at least one evening a week on leisure activities. It’s important for me to never, ever fall fully into the “all work and no play makes Trent a dull boy” trap. I came close to that in the past, so I know now that leisure time is vital for my well-being.
However, there are priorities that do come in above that. My family is one.
Typically, Sunday evening is the one evening each week that I devote to pure leisure time, but when there’s a family event going on then, like my oldest son’s participation in a soccer tournament, I have a priority conflict, but my family priority wins out. What then typically happens is that I look for ways to fulfill the other priority. Is there another evening this week I could have an evening devoted to hobbies?
The thing is, I’ve thought about that priority conflict in advance of it ever happening and I know where my priorities lie. I know that my leisure evenings are a secondary priority for me and that my family is a primary priority.
Evaluating quite a few conflicts in that way has actually caused me to have a pretty clear ordering of most priorities in my head. I know what things important to me trump other things of relatively less importance to me, and I can use that relative importance as a guide.
Another important factor is truly understanding that priority. When I say that my family takes top priority, I mean that it takes top priority in terms of using my time when they need me or strongly want me and in terms of making sure their basic needs are met. That doesn’t mean that I use “family” as an excuse to spend $10,000 on a huge mind-blowing vacation because it’s what my “family” needs. My family does not need a $10,000 vacation – that’s not really what I’m prioritizing when I put my family first. I’m not prioritizing spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on sports gear or electronics or equipment for their interest of the week. I do prioritize spending some devoted family time each and every day, however.
It’s only with that kind of understanding of what your priorities mean that you can truly “rank” them and clearly understand that some are more secondary than others. An expensive family vacation that isn’t extremely well planned for and budgeted for is a very, very low priority because it’s not a part of that “family” priority. A family vacation that’s reasonable in price, like a camping trip to a national park, is much more of a “family” priority because the focus there isn’t on some sort of incredible expensive experience but on spending time together doing something new, which doesn’t cost money and is the portion of a trip that’s really in line with “family.” Again, it’s about prioritizing different aspects of your life, and to do that, you have to really understand what you’re prioritizing.
Applying priority ordering to personal finance priorities How important is financial independence (or whatever your specific financial goals happen to be) to you? How does it compare to, say, spending time with your family? How does it compare to, say, buying every little thing your family might want even though you have more than enough stuff and more than enough things to do? Recognizing that “spending quality time with family” and “spending money on more family stuff” are different priorities and thinking about them in relation to your personal finance goals is vital here.
So, take the time to not only think about your priorities, but what those individual priorities really are. Tease them apart so that you’re left with the elements that are truly important and the ones that aren’t (I find that time use and money use, for example, are often very separate priorities).
So often, we let secondary priorities take control of our lives, pushing our primary priorities out of the way. There are a number of reasons for this – we haven’t thought through the relative priorities, we convince ourselves that unimportant things actually have a priority, we don’t keep our priorities in mind – but we can gradually learn to handle all of those reasons through techniques like thinking about priority conflicts in advance, figuring out what it is we truly care about, and reminding ourselves of our top priorities.
Use those tools. They’re incredibly powerful ones if you take them seriously.