Updated on 09.16.11

What Are Your Priorities?

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I was reading a yet-to-be-released personal finance book. At one point in the book, the author suggested that I make an actual list of my priorities. What is the most important thing in my life? What are the key things that follow it, and in what order?

An aside: sometimes I receive prerelease copies of books from authors who hope I’ll say something kind about their book so that they can put the quote on the back cover as a selling point, and I don’t give a good quote unless I’ve actually read the book and liked the book, so my quotes are fairly rare.

After thinking about and editing the list a few times, my list looked something like this:

1. My marriage
2. My children
3. My spirituality and faith
4. My extended family and close friends
5. My health
6. Writing
7. Reading / learning new things
8. My community / politics
9. Other hobbies

I could keep going for a long time after this, but this is roughly what my list looked like.

The author offered up several thoughts about this priority list, but one thought kept running through my mind as I looked at this list of priorities that I’d made.

Every single significant problem in my life comes from situations in which I violate this list of priorities.

What do I mean by “violate”? I simply mean that I make a choice in which I take something of importance away from a higher priority and give it to a lower priority.

For example, if I were to stay up too late with some old friends and this causes me to sleep in too late the next day, missing something that my children wanted me to attend, I feel horrible.

Another example: if I spend too much money on my hobbies, it can impact something that I want to do in the future with my wife and children.

Yet another example: if I eat out (notice how this isn’t even on the list) too often, I won’t be able to afford a book I really want to read.

Now, one could take this to extremes and state that every action, by default, must support one’s highest priority. I don’t think that’s necessarily true at all.

Instead, it’s simply a call that I need to make sure that my higher priorities are covered before I do something involving a lower priority.

Is spending this evening with my friends going to keep me from doing something I need to do tomorrow with my wife, my children, or my spiritual life?

Is spending two hours kicked back and reading going to cause me to skip the exercise I need for my health?

Will this hobby purchase really provide enough for me to reduce the amount I can save toward our next family vacation or for the house my wife and I have always dreamed about?

Again, it comes back to a basic truth: every single significant problem in my life comes from situations in which I violate this list of priorities.

When I violate it with my money choices. With my time choices. With my attention choices.

What are your priorities? How do you handle things when something with a higher priority comes into conflict with something of a lower priority? What really wins? What’s really the priority in your life?

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  1. kristine says:

    This is an excellent exercise. But the world is not so black and white. True conflict is when people have to juggle their priorities, and two high up on the list conflict. For instance, you are told at work to fire several people, whom you do not think should be fired. But if you resist, you will likely lose your job. You know the firings are wrong, but you also know that it is a small town, and you may end up unemployed for a long time, and you could lose your house, have a kid going to college, and stressed out marriage. Do you follow your conscience, or do what is best for your own family? Yeah, yeah, an emergency fund… but not everyone can risk the job- maybe they have preexisting medical conditions, and need the HI.

    It is not just violating your list that causes problems, it can be when forces beyond your control cause top level priorities to come into conflict with each other. Life is complex, and not so either/or. The older you get, the more you realize the world is made up of shades of grey, not black and white. Inability to allow for the grey areas has polarized this country.

  2. krantcents says:

    My priority has always been my family and I am enjoying the fruits of that effort. I have a very long marriage (43 years), a great relationship with my children (talk 3-5 times a week) resulting in a happy and fulfilling life. I followed my passion and started teaching 10 years ago and started blogging about a year ago. I managed to accomplish almost all my goals thanks to the love and support of my family.

  3. Steven says:

    1) My relationship with my girlfriend
    2) My education
    3) Making the world a better place (volunteer work)
    4) Travel
    5) Ending the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan

  4. lurker carl says:

    High priorities should not be violated when you work on low priority areas. Priorities throughout the scale should be integrated toward meeting and keeping goals. Priorities need serious review if they are so conflicted.

  5. Love the idea. Identifying your highest priorities seems like a variation on identifying your values. And, of course, if you know your values, then it simplifies the decision-making process when you have to make financial choices. Takes the willpower battle out of the equation. Makes life easier!

  6. Katie says:

    Okay, to be unduly snarky here for a minute, I’m going to guess that the fact that my totally innocuous comment on this thread went straight to moderation from whence it will likely never be released is a reflection of this website not appearing on the priority list.

  7. Paul says:

    It’s also important to be honest about priorities. It’s tempting, especially if others are going to read it, to put family ahead of hobbies, but I’ll freely admit that I prioritize personal success above family relations (not that they conflict all that often) and consumption hobbies like video games or internet browsing over self-improvement hobbies like reading or working out.

  8. deRuiter says:

    #7 Paul, you are a breath of fresh air and honesty! Thank you.

  9. Telephus44 says:

    Thanks for the honesty Paul! I also have some priorities that aren’t always “the right ones.” For example, taking care of my physical appearance is important to me – like spending money on makeup and getting my nails done – but I hate to put it out there since I’ll be seen as vain or shallow.

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