Have you ever stared at that never ending to do list and felt completely overwhelmed, not knowing what to prioritize or where to start?
If so, this episode is for you.
How to Prioritize When Everything's Important
This episode of the Feel Good Effect is all about how to prioritize when everything seems important and how to pull meaning out of all the noise.
I’m going to share a simple strategy that will help you find Purpose and Process in your to-do list.
Read on to learn more, or scroll to the bottom to listen to the show here or on Apple Podcasts.
Grab the free cheatsheet!
This episode is about how to prioritize when everything seems important.
In this episode, I’m going to share one simple strategy that will change how you prioritize forever.
I’ve created a cheatsheet (that you can download here) with this simple strategy laid out for you so that you can come back to it again and again after you’ve listened to this episode.
On making a meaningful story:
In my spare time lately, I've become absolutely obsessed with storytelling, nerding out on how to be a better storyteller and the role that stories play in our lives.
And of course I've been spending time listening to and really diving into the work of Ira Glass (if you don’t know who he is, Ira Glass is the longtime producer of This American Life, which is one of the quintessential narrative, journalistic podcasts on NPR)
If you haven't heard This American Life, it’s a one hour show that really dives into one theme, telling three to four different stories that end up linking back to this theme.
For these stories, they go talk to people and then condense all of the interviews down into short stories that fit into one hour.
Every time I listen to the show I am blown away by, not just the stories themselves, but how they tie into a single theme, get you to think and feel, and just have this power, meaning and, intention.
And I just became so curious to better understand how they make this show.
It seems so effortless and it seems to go together so seamlessly, but I think we all know that when something seems effortless, there's a lot of intention and work that actually goes into it.
So, I’ve downloaded every interview podcast with Ira Glass, I bought a couple of books, and I just went really deep into how they make the show.
And something that may surprise you if you aren’t a behind the scenes producer of media content, is just how many hours and hours of footage they collect that ends up making one very short story.
They have an idea for a show and a story they want to tell, so they go out into the field and they do hours and hours of interviews, it could be over 20 hours of interviews, and then they come back to the studio and start to piece together the show.
And that means editing; it means taking all of this seemingly important information and distilling it down to a story that has meaning.
(Which essentially means cutting 95-98% of everything they collected).
And this active distilling down, of finding the essence, of drawing meaning out of all of this noise, really makes the show what it is.
If they decided that all of it was important and it all needed to be included to provide as much information as possible, their radio show would end up being 20-30 hours long and you'd miss what was really important because you were distracted by all the noise.
It's a painstaking process, going through, editing, pulling out the essential, and pulling out what really has purpose.
It takes effort and it takes intention, but the final product is so meaningful and so much better.
At the same time, I’ve been thinking about storytelling, editing, how to focus, and how to tell the most important information (or distill out the most important information).
I’ve been having this ongoing wrestling match with my do-to list, and let me tell you, I love a good do-to list.
I will sometimes add things to my to-do list, just so that I can cross them off.
(Especially on a day when I’m having trouble getting going, there is that satisfaction of checking a box or marking something off, feeling a little bit of momentum).
But what I was finding is that my to-do list was crippling me because I never got anywhere near through it.
I would start the day with a very ambitious list, which would include not just the things that I needed to do for work, but also the things that I needed to do to take care of myself, my wellbeing, my health, and my family.
We talked about those three m’s (meals, mind, movement) and with it all, it just go so out of control and overwhelming
The interesting thing about creating this very ambitious, well-intentioned to-do list, is that they all matter, but by creating this sense of never-ending, I wasn’t doing anything.
I was getting paralyzed by feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start.
Often, I would look back at the day and just feel no sense of satisfaction and like I hadn’t made any progress, and it was frustrating.
What was worse was that at the end of the week, I’d look back and think: Was that really where I wanted to spend my time? Is that what I feel is important in my life? Is that the kind of life I want to create?
And often the answer was no, because I could look at places where I was spending time where it really wasn’t that important, even though it had felt important at the time.
So, as I obsess about storytelling, productivity, and ways to make it more meaningful, I had this aha-moment thinking about the editing of that show- how they took 20 hours of information that was probably interesting and important and pulled out the essential parts to make something with real meaning and real impact.
I felt like I could probably do that with my to-do list as well.
All of the things seem important, and on their own they probably are, but I am certain there are some that have more meaning, that are more purposeful, and that ultimately get me where I want to go more than others.
I realized that there had to be a better way.
On refining my to-do list:
So I took some time out to ask: How do we come up with a way to decide what actually matters? How do we come up a way to prioritize, when everything seems so important?
So I went back to this tool that I’ve used in the past, called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which sounds far more complicated than it actually is, based on this quote from President Eisenhower:
“What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important” - D. Eisenhower
So Stephen Covey took this quote in one of his books, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and turned it into a matrix.
Imagine a box with four smaller boxes inside: along the top is “Urgent” and “Not Urgent”, and along the side is “Important” and “Not Important”; that’s the Eisenhower Decision Matrix.
Ultimately, it helps you prioritize.
You want to focus on things that are Urgent + Important, or maybe Important + Not Urgent, but certainly not Not-Urgent + Not Important.
This matrix has been around for a long time, a lot of people use it.
And I think it’s helpful, but when I came back to it I felt like something was really missing.
Especially when we come back to this idea of being an editor of your life, of finding the story that really matters.
I think Urgent and Important have a lot to do with efficiency and productivity in the traditional sense, but I feel like it’s really missing that purpose, meaning, and intention in the way that you want to craft your life and focus on what really matters to you.
So I came up with our own matrix.
(I don’t even have a title for it yet so maybe you guys can help me name this).
However, it’s less about the name here, and more about how you can use it to decide to prioritize, to take that never ending to-do list of everything that seems important and pick out the few things that really matter to focus on, and to build a life filled with meaning.
So, again, imagine a box divided into four smaller boxes, and on one side is “Purpose” and “Without Purpose”, and along the top is “Process” and “Without Process”.
This magic little box is going to be your best friend to help you refine that to-do list, pull out the things that are actually important so that you can let go of or edit out what isn’t.
Grab the cheat sheet here.
On the matrix:
Let’s start with Purpose, and what does that actually mean.
When you look at all the things you do in a day, you can ask yourself this simple question: does this have purpose? (to break it down further: does this have intention behind it, meaning there’s a reason that you’re doing it?)
And you might say, well of course, there’s a reason for everything I do, but really unpack that, is there really?
And the second question to ask: is this meaningful? (does it have significance to you?)
And that’s Purpose- if it’s intentional, meaning there is a reason that you’re doing it, and if it’s meaningful, meaning it has significance to you.
On the flip side, is Without Purpose, which is non-intentional, meaning that there is no clear reason to do it and not meaningful or significant to you.
And on the other side is Process.
“Process is really about creating a path or a daily practice toward where you want to be”.
If you have a goal, if you have intention, if there is some significance, Process has to do with helping you get there.
It’s doing a little something everyday, getting out of all-or-nothing, and really focusing on the daily practice of whatever it is that you're trying to do.
Something with Process is something helping you create a path toward where you want to be, maybe that’s a goal, or a way you want to feel, or the life you want to create.
And also its aligned with a daily practice- something that you’re able to do more than you’re not.
Without Process, on the other hand, leads nowhere.
Again, you might think, well nothing on my list leads nowhere, but there probably are so many things and so many ways that you spend time that aren’t leading anywhere.
And that can be fine, we all have ways that we want to decompress, but there are probably also things on that list that aren’t leading anywhere or that are all-or-nothing, something that you’re going big on that you know you can’t sustain or keep the momentum going.
You can use this matrix to run your own editing process
Using the Purpose + Process Matrix:
One of the questions I get a lot from clients, Feel Good Effect listeners, and the Real Food Whole Life community, is: how do I prioritize the three m’s, meals, movement and mind, when there are not enough hours in the day to do it all?
I know how important they all are, I know how important eating well is and how important moving my body is and maybe meditating or journaling, but when I look at my schedule, I know it is not realistic to do all of the things all of the time.
The big takeaway message here it that regardless of how you fill out the matrix, you can have more by doing less.
Truly, you can manage and balance the three m’s and have a well life without doing all the things all the time.
Let’s say that’s your struggle right now: you want to focus on your mind, and add movement, and focus on meals, but you already feel so overextended.
Let’s start with Purpose questions.
Let’s say you want to add meditation into your schedule- I’d start by asking Purpose questions: Whats the intention? What do you want to get out of meditating?
My guess is that it’s not really about the habit, it’s about what you hope to get out of it.
Maybe you hope to feel calmer or more focused
And even further: What's the meaning? Why is that significant to you?
“There’s always a why behind the why”
Maybe the significance of feeling calmer or more focused is so that you can be more present with your friends and family, or have a better sense of well being
And then let’s talk about Process.
Often times, we are able to identify meaning and intention, but when it comes to Process and what we're going to do everyday, things kind of fall apart.
We lose sight of how that is even going to happen.
So first, I like to think of the Purpose box, the intention behind the “what” and the intention behind the “why”.
And when we come to Process, which is really the intention behind the “how”: How is this even going to happen?
Going back to the meditation example: Do you have any kind of process? Do you have a way that you’re going to be able to do this more days than not? Will that really lead you to where you want to be?
I think there is a lot of talk about adding intention to our lives, which is great, but I think where we miss the boat sometimes is forgetting to talk about this idea of Process.
“We can have great intention.. But if we don’t have a way to get from where we are to where we want to be in a realistic way, then we know things kind of fall apart”
This is a time to be really honest with yourself about what you can do in this season of your life.
Am I approaching this by being incremental and making small baby steps or am I approaching this with all-or-nothing?
This is where we get tripped up so often.
The pull toward all-or-nothing is so strong, it’s the way our brains are wired and the messages we get from media underlying our culture.
We make up these rules that don't exist, but we tell ourselves it has to be.
This is where the “should’s” show up, where perfectionism shows up, where comparison happens, where we say it has to look a certain way or it doesn't count.
So for you, you may think meditation has to happen every day and it has to be 20 minutes.
If that consistently is not happening but it keeps showing up on your list, you know that you have purpose there but you don't have process.
And if you want your goal to show up in the Purpose + Process box, and that’s the box you’re going to prioritize, how do you tweak that process so it actually fits in your life?
How do you let go of perfectionism, all-or-nothing, and comparison, and say: What does this look like for me in my real life right now? How can I do this more days than I don’t without completely overwhelming myself?
You keep asking yourself these questions until you move your goal out of Without Process, into Process, and you end up with something that is meaningful, intentional and that can actually happen in your life.
And we can do that with all the things.
If meal planning is on your list of to-dos but it seems to not happen or it’s completely overwhelming you, then you go back to those questions of purpose: Why does this matter? Why is this significant to me?
If you can find some really good meaning there, some intention, then absolutely it goes in the Purpose box.
But then let’s move over to process.
Do you have expectations that maybe aren’t totally realistic right now, or you just haven’t found a system or a process that works for you?
The fun thing is that you can workshop these boxes.
I would start by workshopping your Purpose + Without Process box; anything with Purpose + Process I’m guessing you’re already doing, but you can definitely start there too .
If you have crossover with Purpose + Process, then that’s what you should prioritize.
Instead of trying to do 90 things in a day, try to focus on three things with Purpose + Process, just three.
And when those get done, you can kind of pick up some of the other things that have been left off.
“You don’t have to do everything, because the things that you’re doing are going to matter, they’re going to have meaning, and they’re going to move you to where you want to go”.
And if there are items on your to-do list that you feel are important but haven’t made their way into the Purpose + Process box, then start workshopping that.
If it’s Purpose + Without Process, how do you break it down, take more baby steps, make it more incremental, make it smaller so that you’re actually able to do it on a regular basis?
Here’s the thing, this takes a little work, practice, and coming back again and again.
The more I’ve used this, the more it’s changed, not only how I feel at the end of my to-do list, but at the end of my day, the end of my week, and has just brought me clarity and focus.
And it’s not perfect, there are still days where I find myself adding more and more to my list, but I just have to come back and really ask those questions.
“If I do the things that matter, the things that have process, I can have more by doing less”
We’re going into December, where lists can get really long, so this is the perfect opportunity to practice.
As we go into January, this will be a great jumping off point.
Grab the cheat sheet to practice, and share with me how you’re taking this information and putting it into your lives.
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