Why is it so hard to prioritize your priorities?


3 Ways to Avoid Short Term Priority Traps

Why is it when you know you have a big deadline coming up your inbox suddenly needs urgent attention?

Or on the day you planned to use to begin a new program your mom needs a ride or your dog can’t go another day without a shampoo?

Or maybe that new exercise habit you say you want to start keeps getting sidelined by another late night on Facebook, leaving you too tired to get up in the morning?

Are you just too busy to focus?

Or are you anxious at the thought of doing something you haven’t done before? And rather than sit with that anxiety long enough to examine it, you keep doing the things you can control, your checklist.

So is the problem your life, or your habits? What’s really going on here?

There is no doubt it’s important to you to build your business, write your book or get in shape, but life demands keep getting in the way. You tell yourself you need to take care of these nagging details before you can focus on your top priority goals.

You may not appreciate how much your body contributes to the inner dialog here. That rush of dopamine you get with every check of the box feels much better than the cortisol surge that comes with thinking about taking a risk.

Box checking can feel like you’re staying on top of things. The problem is, this pattern of letting short-term goals get in the way of your top priorities keeps you stuck.

If your top priorities, your big picture goals are being pushed aside by too many life demands it’s time to take a step back and reconnect with your values.

But first, let’s take a look at some common short-term priority traps.

Anxiety-reducing priorities

Those tasks we tell ourselves we have to do to be able to focus on our priorities. How tempting is it to respond right away, to manage your inbox, to always be available? Back to that dopamine rush!

We don’t often realize the uncertainty of change, or starting something new is a source of anxiety. Turning to routine, even when you know it’s a distraction, can ease the anxiety temporarily.

But those requests, electronic and otherwise, will keep coming. When you’re able to connect to the source of your anxiety and examine it, you can work on ways to manage it that don’t require constant distraction.

Guilt-driven priorities

Those tasks we tell ourselves we should do, based on external expectations. Mom needs a ride, your teenager needs breakfast, and the parents club needs a volunteer.

Put on your mask first. Guilt is another way of shielding ourselves. We feel bad about ourselves for our inability to meet other-driven expectations. As opposed to self-acceptance. When we trust ourselves, accepting our own judgment as valid and our response as aligned with our values, we can let go of feeling guilty.

Down goes the stress level and up goes the clarity, energy, and focus.

Worry-driven priorities

Those self-imposed markers we tell ourselves are a prerequisite to moving forward with our goals.

I can’t join the gym until I lose 10 pounds.

Or, I need to earn another certification or earn a master’s degree before I’ll feel qualified to apply for that job, speak on that subject, or write my book.

I refer to these as voices of resistance. They’re the internal dialogue of not enoughness. When you make space to actively practice self-compassion, you’re able to see these voices as anxiety speaking, biased to keep you safe from perceived threats like potential rejection. Once we recognize these feelings for what they are, defense mechanisms, we can disengage from them as we move into self-acceptance.

In the words of the esteemed icon of resilience, Viktor E. Frankl;

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Anxiety is our deeply rooted defense system, showing up as discomfort, guilt, and worry as we face an uncertain future. These distractions keep us safely in our comfort zone, but they don’t get us closer to our goals.

What can we do to calm the anxious part of our brain that keeps us too busy or overwhelmed to move into action?

1. Get grounded.

Begin with the breath! In 2018, researchers published, “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity,” in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This review presents a wide range of studies that illustrate how slower respiration rates and longer exhalations stimulate the rest and digest response, which downregulates stress levels.

2. Lean into the source.

By keeping track of your triggers, or the events that create anxiety throughout your day, you can begin to recognize the stressors before you’re too caught up in overwhelm to focus.

As you continue to pay attention, you’ll begin to understand the source of your anxiety, which often originates in the amygdala, the part of the brain that works by association rather than reason. Which is why you can’t talk your way out of a fight, flight, freeze response.

Instead, when you recognize a source of your anxiety, try to visualize yourself facing the challenges holding you back. If you’re worried about asking someone for an introduction or speaking in front of a group, visualize it happening the way you’re most worried about. What would you do? Could you handle it? Imagining your worst fear presenting itself, and envisioning yourself prepared to respond in a way that aligns with your goals and values, reduces the fear associated with that event.

3. Hard priorities first.

Okay so you’re managing your stress, you’re aware of your triggers, and you’ve decided to commit to your top priority goals. But you are not out of the water yet! James Clear, the best-selling author of Atomic Habits, recommends breaking down big goals into the smallest possible increments and getting the hard things done first.

Tony Robbins calls this “eating the frog”. After a meal like that, pretty much anything else is palatable.

Remember to save those quick and easy tasks for last, no matter how tempting to get that dopamine rush vs. stepping out of your comfort zone.

Understanding your brain’s go-to responses, why they happen, and how to regulate them is the key to reaching your top priority goals!

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