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How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

    The world, it seems, is going downhill fast. Everyone has a take on what’s wrong: liberals over-regulating everything, conservatives decimating the principles of governance, immigrants refusing to blend in, racists bashing immigrants, poor parenting, non-family-friendly policies, corporations bound to short-term profits instead of long-term social responsibilities, activists hampering corporate innovation, and of course the Jews, always the Jews. You name it, someone’s upset by it and the negative effect it causes in the world, by the sheer affront to decent people’s values that the world poses.

    The problem is, the problems facing the world today are so huge, so global in their reach, that most of us are simply overwhelmed by them. We feel we should do something, but what? On top of that, we’re so busy just trying to stay afloat in the roiling seas of modern life that even if we did know what to do, we don’t know how we’d find time to actually do it.

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    Bummer, huh? Well, it seems to me that the same principles we apply to our own personal productivity can be applied to the problems of the world. In short, we can “GTD” the world’s problems.

    How? The same way we approach our own problems — set a goal and then figure out what the very next action is that we’d have to take to get there.

    Just like you can’t “install cable” (to use one of David Allen’s examples), you can’t “end racism” or “fix the environment”. What you can do is figure out what one thing you could do to bring you — and the world — closer to that goal.

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    Here are some things you might put on your @world next actions list:

    • Look up Senator’s office phone number/email address
    • Get voter registration form online
    • Research local organizations that need volunteers
    • Buy 6 compact fluorescent light bulbs
    • Put three canvas bags in car trunk for next shopping trip
    • Talk to kids about global warming
    • Call Reverend Hassan about starting a church auxiliary group
    • Knit blanket for homeless shelter
    • Look up regulations for running for local office
    • Join school parents association
    • Research organizations to donate money to
    • Check local library’s website for upcoming meetings

    These are just examples; none of them might apply to whatever your own personal values are. The point is, just as with any other project, if you want results you have to be prepared to act — and you can’t act on big, grandiose, world-changing goals. You can only act on concrete next actions.

    Now, first steps are hardly enough to fix the world’s problems. Still if everyone took just one baby step, that’d be something, at least. But I’m not advocating you find one little thing to do, do it, and spend the rest of your days feeling smug about the great thing you did that one time.

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    The goal here isn’t to take a step, it’s to take the first step. As I mentioned recently, we humans tend to be strongly guided by inertia. Once we set on a path, it’s often easier to just stay on it than to change it. That first step, that very next action, is meant to do two things:

    1. Disrupt the current inertia of your life, and
    2. Set you on a new path that, with time, will be harder to stop than to stay on.

    Which means that, once you buy that energy-saving light bulb or find out about a group worth joining, it’s time to cross that off your list and think of what the next next action is. And then the next one, and the next one again after that.

    You may not change the world. In fact, you probably won’t change the world — although, imagine the influence you just might have on the people around you, the opportunity you’ll have to share your own values not just by talking about them but by demonstrating them on a day-to-day basis.

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    But changing the world isn’t the immediate point here. The point is changing your relationship with the world. Here’s the thing: I look around, and I see people who are profoundly unhappy, and they don’t know why. They look at, say, the rampant consumerism in society, they’re depressed by it, they feel powerless and overwhelmed by it, and maybe they think “Oh, this world is messed up, that’s why I’m unhappy. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, best to just worry about myself and try to make it as best as I can.”

    But that’s wrong — you can’t make yourself happy by making room in your life for whatever’s making you unhappy! In my interview with Liz Strauss on Lifehack Live in January, she talked about bringing our heads, hearts, and purposes in line as the key to a successful life, and I agree — when you live your life at cross-purposes from your values, you’re bound to be unhappy.

    I’d like to see you, me, and everyone else living their values, whatever those values are. Sure, there are bound to be contradictions, conflicts, disagreements — but we have those already. What we don’t have is a society filled with people whose lives clearly express the values they espouse, not because they’re hypocrites but because they haven’t figure out the need to turn abstract values into concrete actions — just like many of us struggle to turn the various projects in our lives into doable next actions. 

    The idea of a society filled with people who have figured that out makes me incredibly optimistic. Because that’s a society that, with all it’s disagreements, can get things done. And maybe, just maybe, in the long run, that’s exactly what it might take to start fixing the big problems — people who feel truly led by the values they choose to live by.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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