How to Stick to Your Priorities in Life When Feeling Overwhelmed

Summary: Our sense of meaning and fulfillment comes from knowing our priorities in life and living them through our actions. This is easier said than done, however - especially in turbulent times. Read on to learn the steps you can take to clarify your highest priorities so your commitments reflect what's most important to you.

How to Stick to Your Priorities in Life When Feeling Overwhelmed

How to better align your time and your priorities.

The last few months have been difficult for everyone. During such upheaval it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by life and want to crawl under a rock until 2020 is behind us.

Settling into a “coronavirus status quo” – with standards that are more relaxed than the ones you held pre-coronavirus – is a perfectly acceptable way to live right now. Why drive yourself crazy trying to be a superhero when daily life is challenging enough?

But, the silver lining of a crisis is that it clarifies what matters most.

What have the past few weeks revealed to you about your priorities in life? What has stayed, or moved, front and center? Finding work? Safeguarding your and your family’s mental and physical health? Educating yourself about racism?

Perhaps this turbulent time has highlighted or shifted your priorities in a way that inspires you to take action. Sometimes, taking action is an antidote to feeling stuck. Action allows us to exercise our own motivation and feel good about affecting positive change.

If you feel inspired to set a goal or change a habit at this time, how do you make the new priority “stick”?

Chalkboard with 'the next step' written on it

First, it’s important to recognize our priorities reflect how we spend our time. Saying something is a priority is meaningless; devoting time and energy to it is what makes it a priority.

How we spend our time is often determined by our unconscious habits, rather than conscious decision-making. Changing our priorities means making a conscious decision to align our habits to support the new priority.

Unfortunately the gap between a desire to change and actually changing our behavior is filled with distractions, prior commitments, and limited time and energy. How can you make the change process manageable and more likely to succeed?

To begin with: think first, act later. Research shows that successful behavior change involves the critical first step of understanding and clarifying the change we wish to make.

The three stages of behavior change

Experts refer to these early stages of behavior change as the precontemplation, contemplation and preparation stages. These stages help us progress through simple consideration of the change, to critical information gathering, and then to planning stages before actually putting the change process into action.

Let’s say the current climate has inspired you to become more politically or socially engaged. Or maybe take better care of yourself. Or perhaps stick to a fun summer schedule to help your family cope better with the current situation.

The three stages outlined above can help you understand exactly what change you want to make, why, and what the potential costs and benefits of this change are – all of which are critical to making a change in priorities successful.

These questions will help you get the necessary information:

Daily calendar with 'make it happen' written on it
  1. What specific change are you planning to make? Rather than saying you wish to “be healthier”, or “participate in social justice,” be more specific about what that means. Does being healthier mean losing 30 lbs? Exercising every day? If you wish to be more involved in social justice, what does that mean to you? Educating yourself about the problem? Participating in protests? Donating to relevant organizations? Write down the specifics about the change you wish to make.
  2. Why is this change important to you? Are you doing it to live in greater accordance with your values? Garner praise (or avoid criticism)? Make yourself or someone else happy? Once you know why you’re making this change, you’ll know whether your motivations to change are important enough to summon the time and energy necessary to achieve it.
  3. Are you prepared for the costs of making this change? Costs come in terms of time, energy, money and personal discomfort. What will you sacrifice to make this priority a reality? How will you motivate yourself to keep moving forward when you feel overwhelmed or stuck?
  4. What are the benefits of making this change? Will it benefit you directly, or others you care about? Does this help you express an important but latent value? Are the costs you’ve outlined above worth the benefits?

Evaluate your priorities

Large question mark made up of colorful flowers

These questions help me when I’m evaluating a change in my own priorities. For example, I decided a few years ago that I wanted to lose weight and I answered these questions as they related to that goal. For starters, I got specific. I determined a specific weight loss goal, a timeframe for meeting it, and the steps I’d take to achieve it. I also decided the benefits outweigh the costs associated with the work.

Until COVID, I was having some success. Though COVID-related stressors have prompted me to modify the timeline of my weight-loss goal as I deal with other stressors, the information I gathered by answering these questions is still important. I came to understand that staying flexible, strong and healthy are also important to me.

So I’m inspired to keep up on my exercise and (generally) healthy eating habits even though losing weight will take longer than initially planned. These healthy habits will keep me in better spirits and healthier than I’d be otherwise, and will hopefully keep me from backsliding into weight gain.

How to find the answers

Changing behavior is tough, but there are tools and strategies that can help you gain the clarity and insight you need to determine if a change is right for you and, if so, how you’ll go about it.

Picture of a writing journal and pen
  • Journal writing is a great way to find answers to the questions above. Social worker Katherine Schreiber says, “Conduct a thorough analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of continuing with the proposed behavior or moving forward with behavioral change. The most helpful way to do this might be to actually sit down with a pen and paper and write your thoughts out.” Writing in a quiet place focuses your mind and helps you avoid distractions.
  • Talk to friends or acquaintances who can provide insight and perspective. It can be especially helpful to talk to those people who know you well, or have made the change that you’re considering.

As you answer the questions, you may find the change you’re contemplating isn’t for you – at least for now. It’s much better to make a realistic decision early on rather than waste energy and time on a half-hearted attempt to make a change you’re not really invested in or ready for.

And if you do decide to go for it, you’ll be better prepared and more likely to successfully make your new priority a reality. 

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